Peter Schwerdtfeger's love of chemistry first caused the evacuation of his family's apartment block. Last night, it won him New Zealand's highest science honour.

What makes gold golden? Why is mercury the only metallic element that is liquid at room temperature?

Daring to answer these seemingly unanswerable questions has defined the career of the newest recipient of our highest science honour.

But in the beginning, the scientific proposition on the mind of a teenaged Peter Schwerdtfeger was slightly simpler.

How do I blow things up?


As with many other great careers, it was a basic chemistry set that put the Massey University scientist, last night presented the Royal Society of New Zealand's Rutherford Medal, on a path to becoming one of the world's most sought-after theoretical chemists.

The experiments in his childhood home in Stuttgart, Germany, began innocently with dissolving sugar to make caramel.

That changed when he got his first chemistry textbook.

The equation of potassium chlorate plus phosphorus was swiftly discovered to equal the evacuation of the five-story apartment building his family were living in, followed by a visit from unimpressed police.

"I wouldn't do that now," the now Distinguished Professor Schwerdtfeger recalled with a chuckle.

"I did take a very tiny amount of that and demonstrate the reaction in front of one of my classes, but I couldn't do it now because of health and safety rules."

That and every other experiment in his life has been launched by a refusal to swallow standard explanations for what makes our world work.

"Growing up in Germany, whenever I asked, why is it like that, the answer was always 'it's just because'. I never accepted that."

While many friends in his working class neighbourhood joined the city's automobile industry, the self-described pacifist refused to serve West Germany's military and instead absorbed himself in mathematics, physics and chemistry, gathering four or five degrees by the time he turned 30.

He covered his living costs by driving taxis at night and in one instance reminiscent of Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver rescued a 14-year-old prostitute from a violent pimp.

It was a Jacques Cousteau documentary proclaiming New Zealand "the last paradise on earth" that inspired he and his then partner to travel here in the early 1980s.

By the end of the decade, with a posting at the University of Auckland, he had begun to establish himself as one of the country's few theoretical chemists.

Around that time appeared a Herald article about an IBM computer bought by the university which had proven a multi-million dollar white elephant.

"I rang the guy responsible and said, I can tell you, I'll use that computer 100 per cent."

The use of a super computer eventually helped him achieve his first major breakthrough and one of his most cited papers out of nearly 300 to date.

In analysing the chemistry and physics of gold, he drew upon Einstein's Theory of Relativity to give new understandings of what gives the precious metal its unique metal colour.

Carrying on this work, initially rejected by journals, he has sought to reveal what chemical reactions can be caused or influenced in heavy elements like gold when the effects of relativity were factored in.

Last year, Einstein's special relativity was used in calculations and computational simulations to solve a long-standing problem of why mercury is the only metallic element that is liquid at room temperature.

Without the effect, the melting point would be around +80C, not 39C as observed.

Today the director of the Centre for Theoretical Chemistry and Physics at Massey's Albany-based Institute for Advanced Study, Professor Schwerdtfeger occupies a world of such mind-boggling concepts as quantum electrodynamic effects, electroweak interactions and graph theory with fullerene structures.

But fundamental research, he said, had borne countless invaluable benefits to society, from the internet and development of lasers to treatments against illnesses such as cancer.

"It will be fundamental research which helps us to solve the many great challenges human beings face on our planet," he said.

"If you focus solely on the commercial side without investing in fundamental science you may get neither of them."

He thought it wrong that the tightly-contested Marsden Fund was one of the country's only avenues to drive applied science, especially with immense challenges like global warming still awaiting solution.

That the Rutherford Medal was named after a hero of fundamental science, Sir Ernest Rutherford, the 59-year-old felt even more delighted to win the country's highest science honour.

"He's one of the true giants science - not only did he split the atom, he also discovered the proton ... he's in the same category as Einstein," he said.

"In physics, you know, he's very much up there and I'm down here."

Yet with seven Marsden grants in the last 15 years and a published research-quantifying "h-index" standing tall at 47, he can claim to be the most highly cited chemist and physicist in the country at his age.

The Rutherford Medal selection panel described him as one of New Zealand's "most brilliant and internationally highly sought-after scientists", adding that his research had provided a deep insight into how atoms and molecules interact at the quantum level.

With no plans to leave New Zealand, he wants to keep pushing the boundaries of science, while inspiring his students with the same curiosity that has driven his own career.

"I absolutely love teaching, but I do tell my students not to believe absolutely everything I'm saying," he said.

"I can teach them what we know today - but that may well be very different tomorrow."

At a glance: Distinguished Professor Peter Schwerdtfeger

• Described as one of New Zealand's "most brilliant and internationally highly sought-after scientists". His multi-disciplinary research had provided a deep insight into how atoms and molecules interact at the quantum level.

• The director of the Centre for Theoretical Chemistry and Physics at Massey University's Albany-based Institute for Advanced Study.

• Born into a working class family in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1955. Once rescued a teenaged prostitute while working as a taxi driver to earn a living while he studied.

• Has received many international grants, awards and prizes, including a James Cook Fellowship and the Hector Medal in 2001, the Alexander von Humboldt Research Prize and the Fukui medal in 2011.

• Joins other celebrated Rutherford Medallists including Distinguished Professor Dame Anne Salmond (2013) Distinguished Professor Margaret Brimble (2012) and Professor Christine Winterbourn (2011).

Other honour recipients

Dr Rob Murdoch, general manager of research at National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) won the Thomson Medal awarded for science and technology leadership and organisation.

Associate Professor Peter Dearden, a geneticist at the University of Otago, was awarded the Callaghan Medal for science communication for the outreach activities at Genetics Otago involving bees.

Professor Alistair Gunn, a clinical scientist at the University of Auckland, received the MacDiarmid Medal for research with potential for human benefit, for his pioneering research on using brain cooling to prevent brain injury in babies who experience low oxygen at birth.

Professor Simon Malpas, Professor of Physiology at the University of Auckland, was awarded the Pickering Medal for application of technology, for developing implantable wireless sensors that can monitor physiological processes such as heart activity or lung function in the body.

Professor Charles Higham, an archeologist from the University of Otago, was awarded the Mason Durie Medal for social sciences for his work to understand social change in Southeast Asia over three millennia.

Distinguished Professor Brian Boyd of the University of Auckland was presented with the Humanities Aronui Medal for his wide-ranging contribution to the humanities.

Professor Lydia Wevers, director of the Stout Research Centre at Victoria University of Wellington, was awarded the Pou Aronui Award for her dedication to promoting New Zealand studies, literature and art.

Emeritus Professor David Vere-Jones, from Victoria University of Wellington, was awarded the Jones Medal to recognise his lifetime achievement in statistics, both for his novel work on forecasting earthquakes and earthquake risk and for his contribution to the teaching of statistics and mathematics in New Zealand.

Distinguished Professor Marston Conder from the University of Auckland was awarded the Hector Medal for his outstanding contribution to mathematics. His main interest is in group theory and its applications, especially to the study of symmetry.

Professor Alison Jones was awarded the Dame Joan Metge Medal for the significant impact she has made on New Zealand educational research and practice, particularly on Maori-Pakeha educational relationships and women's education at tertiary level.

Professor Parry Guilford of the University of Otago received the Sir Charles Hercus Medal for excellence in biomedical and health sciences. Professor Guilford is internationally recognised for his work that established the gene mutation that can lead to hereditary stomach cancer in families.

Award for 'cooling cap'

An Auckland professor who developed a "cooling cap" to treat babies with brain injury at birth has been awarded a prestigious medal.

University of Auckland Professor of Paediatrics and Physiology Alastair Jan Gunn was awarded the MacDiarmid Medal for research into using brain cooling to prevent injury in babies who suffer low oxygen at birth.

Professor of Paediatrics and Physiology at the University of Auckland, Professor Gunn, with his mother, the late Professor Tania Gunn, carried out a pioneering randomised, safety study of head cooling in New Zealand in the late nineties.

This study established that therapeutic cooling was feasible and safe even in very sick newborn babies, and that simple bedside tests could quickly identify babies who might benefit from treatment.

Professor Gunn led a major international trial involving 25 perinatal centres and 234 babies in New Zealand, the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.

This trial demonstrated that cooling could improve survival without disability in all but the most severely affected babies.

Follow-ups when the children were 7 and 8 years old confirmed the results, as have eight subsequent published trials carried out by others around the world.

Professor Gunn said he was delighted and honoured to receive the MacDiarmid medal.

"It's only this year, 16 years after publication of our first study and nearly 10 years after the large trials, that mild cooling for reducing the impact of birth-related brain injuries on babies is now universally accepted in New Zealand and overseas," he said adding that they were trying to refine the technique: "There is increasing evidence that natural anti-oxidants such as melatonin can be beneficial when combined with cooling."

- Nikki Papatsoumas