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Story: Physics, chemistry and mathematics

Nobel Prize-winning New Zealand physicist Ernest Rutherford saw scientific discovery as an art form. While New Zealand physicists, chemists and mathematicians have sometimes headed overseas for increased career opportunities, they have also achieved great feats of creativity and innovation, both at home and abroad.

Story by Rebecca Priestley
Main image: NIWA physicist Ben Liley adjusting a LIDAR

Story Summary

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Early science in New Zealand

In the 1860s science institutions such as the Geological Survey, Colonial Observatory and Colonial Laboratory were set up in Wellington. By 1880 the main centres had museums.

In 1865 William Skey was appointed as government chemical analyst. He mainly answered questions relating to agriculture and mining.

The New Zealand Institute, a national scientific body, was set up in 1867. Its annual journal focused mostly on biology and geology, but in 1894 it published an article by young physicist Ernest Rutherford.

Research institutions

From the 1870s universities were set up and taught chemistry and mathematics. However, lecturers had little time for research, and few people did postgraduate study.

In 1926 the government established the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR), headed by physicist Ernest Marsden. Its work on physics and chemistry mostly had a practical focus.

In 1992 the DSIR was replaced by a number of Crown research institutes.

New Zealand scientists overseas

Until the mid-20th century it was difficult for scientists to pursue research careers in New Zealand. Most science jobs were practical work helping industry and farming. Many scientists went overseas to work in better-resourced institutions.

Atomic physicist Ernest Rutherford left New Zealand in 1895. He worked in England and Canada, and made many important discoveries, winning the Nobel Prize in 1908. Other physicists who worked overseas included Maurice Wilkins, Beatrice Tinsley and Ian Axford.

Mathematicians who worked overseas included Alexander Aitken, a master of mental calculations, and Roy Kerr, who found solutions to Einstein’s equations of relativity. Chemists included Joseph Mellor, who did important work on ceramics, and Richard Barrer, who founded the study of zeolites.


  • In 2000 Alan MacDiarmid (with Alan Heeger and Hideki Shiragawa) won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering that plastics could conduct electricity.
  • In the 2010s Wellington company Boutiq produced nanoparticles (molecular particles) which were used around the world by scientists and engineers.
  • Physicist Paul Callaghan set up a company making magnetic resonance imaging devices for the oil and gas industry and for research and education centres.
  • Māori knowledge and western science sometimes combined to produce innovative products and ideas.

Strengths and issues

New Zealand science has made important contributions to agriculture, health research and earth science, and to nanotechnology, ceramics, radiocarbon dating and applied mathematics. However, it still faced problems in the 2000s. Limited funding meant many scientists still left for overseas. Scientific knowledge was often not adopted by wider society, and Māori and Pacific people were under-represented in science.

How to cite this page:

Rebecca Priestley, 'Physics, chemistry and mathematics', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 29 April 2017)

Story by Rebecca Priestley, published 22 Oct 2014