Our research community tonight gathers in Wellington for a gala dinner celebrating 150 years of our leading body for science and the humanities, the Royal Society Te Aparangi. Science reporter Jamie Morton looks at 10 highlights in its history.

1874: The cave controversy

Who hunted the moa to extinction proved a heated dispute between two scientific heavyweights. Photo / File
Who hunted the moa to extinction proved a heated dispute between two scientific heavyweights. Photo / File

A cave just outside Christchurch proved the centre of one of the biggest academic stoushes in New Zealand's history - and pitted two scientific heavyweights against each other.

It began in 1874, when New Zealand Geological Survey and Colonial Museum director James Hector read to a Wellington audience a paper by a field assistant named Alexander McKay.

The paper described a curious cave at Sumner, in which moa bones were found, along with polished stone tools and geology that suggested the objects had been there for many centuries.


The cave's formation, along with the items, McKay believed, left it unclear whether moa were exterminated long ago by a race other than Maori - or whether Maori had arrived in the country as far back as 1350 years before and soon exterminated the species.

The suggestions were controversially at odds with the theory advanced by Canterbury Museum director and McKay's former employer, Julius Haast, who believed the moa had been hunted by a Palaeolithic people who used chipped stone tools, not polished ones.

So began a war of words between Hector, who backed McKay's work, and Haast, who felt betrayed that his former employee McKay had produced a paper without his permission or approval.

According to the New Zealand Journal of History, it had grieved Haast "that a man, for whom I have done everything in my power to help him on in the world, should thus ... gain an unenviable notoriety".

Of Hector, Haast wrote the great scientist "must know that the abettor of such a transaction is as guilty as the perpetrator himself".

The dispute played out in newspapers and became a talking point of New Zealand's then intellectual elite.

Of course, we now understand the first Maori settlers arrived at some point between 1288 and 1300 - and that moa became extinct between 1300 and 1440.

And scientists maintain that the only known hunter of moa before Maori was the largest eagle species ever - and one first described by its namesake, Julius Haast.


1917: Our greatest scientist's biggest breakthrough

Physicist Lord Ernest Rutherford. Photo / File
Physicist Lord Ernest Rutherford. Photo / File

"I have broken the machine and touched the ghost of matter."

So proclaimed Lord Ernest Rutherford a century ago, in the same year he became the first person to split the atom.

By that point, the Nelson-born godfather of modern atomic physics had already received a Nobel Prize in Chemistry (in 1908) and was a star scientist at Cambridge, McGill and Manchester universities.

His greatest triumphs came in three landmark discoveries, which forever changed modern science and created the field of nuclear physics.

In the first, for which he received his Nobel Prize, he conducted a clever experiment using an air-tight glass tube and radioactive radium emanation to prove that alpha particles are helium ions.

In doing so, Rutherford effectively had, said James Campbell in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biographies, "unravelled the mysteries of radioactivity, showing that some heavy atoms spontaneously decay into slightly lighter, and chemically different, atoms".

"This discovery of the natural transmutation of elements first brought him to world attention."

Later, Rutherford and his young student, Ernest Marsden - who would become a world-renowned physicist in his own right - conducted an experiment that allowed Rutherford to deduce that nearly all of the mass of an atom was concentrated in a nucleus a thousand times smaller than the atom itself.

This gave birth to the nuclear model of the atom - and later formed the basis for revealing the stable orbit of the atom.

In his third and most famous discovery, in 1917, Rutherford succeeded in splitting the atom itself, becoming the first human to create a nuclear reaction.

Albert Einstein called Rutherford a "second Newton" - but the famed scientist wasn't so different from other ingenious Kiwi innovators.

Of his knack for unorthodox solutions to experiments, Rutherford noted of his early years in New Zealand: "We don't have the money, so we have to think."

1936: Inspirational scientist Royal Society's first female fellow

The Royal Society's first female fellow, Kathleen Curtis. Photo / Supplied
The Royal Society's first female fellow, Kathleen Curtis. Photo / Supplied

Kathleen Maisey Curtis wasn't just a huge figure in mycology - the scientist was a founder of modern New Zealand plant pathology - but an enduring inspiration for women.

Curtis, later Lady Rigg, was the first New Zealand woman to gain a Diploma in Science, conferred at the University of London in 1919, and wrote a seminal, Huxley Medal-winning thesis on the cause of wart disease in potatoes.

When Nelson's Cawthron Institute opened two years later, Curtis had already accepted a role as a mycologist; by 1928, she was heading the department.

Her more than 20 papers throughout the 1920s and 1930s explored treatments to diseases threatening key species like tobacco, tomatoes, pome fruit and pine trees.

But her advocacy for women - she was keenly involved in the New Zealand Federation of University Women and advocated the extension of jury service to women - pushed her legacy outside the bounds of science.

In 1936, she became the first female fellow elected to the Royal Society of New Zealand.

Lady Rigg died in Nelson, age 102, in September 1994 - the same year her portrait was hung in the society's Wellington headquarters.

1950s-1960s: New Zealand's original rocket man

Dr William Pickering, Dr James Van Allen and Wernher von Braun - creators of NASA's Explorer 1 - hold a model of the rocket at a 1958 press conference.
Dr William Pickering, Dr James Van Allen and Wernher von Braun - creators of NASA's Explorer 1 - hold a model of the rocket at a 1958 press conference.

When Neil Armstrong took mankind's first giant step on the moon in 1969, a Kiwi scientist had helped get him there.

Wellington-born rocket scientist Sir William Pickering was a central figure in Nasa's efforts in the space race of the 1950s and 1960s.

Following his death in 2004, Nasa dubbed Pickering "Mr JPL" - paying tribute to his role with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, managed for the space agency by the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).

Joining the lab during World War II, Pickering was leading the operation by 1954; the Space Act passed by the US Congress four years later gave him and his team a charter to develop space missions.

When the JPL-designed Mariner II travelled to Venus in 1962, Pickering landed a spot on the cover of Time.

He again graced the magazine's cover when the Mariner IV was launched toward Mars in the mid-1960s.

Other great achievements were the first pictures of the lunar surface that were collected by the Ranger VII spacecraft.

The observations disproved the wide-held belief that the Moon was covered in a thick layer of dust - and helped clear the way for Armstrong's historic first steps.

While he remained in the US for the rest of his life - receiving the prestigious National Medal of Science from President Gerald Ford in 1975 - Pickering never forgot where he came from.

He retained a painting of Mt Cook in his office, along with faint hints of a Kiwi accent.

And in his home country, the drive for space that propelled his career is stronger than ever: Peter Beck's Rocket Lab is soon due to launch its first Electron rocket from Mahia on the North Island's East Coast.

1962: Nobel Prize for DNA pioneer Maurice Wilkins

DNA pioneer Maurice Wilkins. Photo / File
DNA pioneer Maurice Wilkins. Photo / File

The small Tararua township of Pongaroa, population 300, isn't known for much.

But it can stake its claim as the birthplace of a Nobel Prize-winning visionary who helped discover the structure of DNA - the building block of human life.

Wilkins' time in New Zealand was short-lived; he was brought to England as a child and went on to become a research assistant in Birmingham University's physics department.

Later, at King's College in London, he began putting his expertise towards using x-rays to produce photographs of DNA molecules - effectively pioneering the new scientific field biophysics.

In 1950, he produced the world's first pictures of DNA.

His images, together with those of another physicist also working at King's, Rosalind Franklin, led to the discovery by American geneticist James Watson and English biophysicist Francis Crick of the "double helix" structure of DNA and confirmation that DNA carried life's hereditary information.

The discovery was so important Crick announced to friends afterwards: "We have found the secret of life."

The work revolutionised biology, paving the way for huge breakthroughs in many walks of life - from the development of vaccines and screening of embryos for conditions such as spina bifida, to DNA profiling of criminals, to more controversial developments such as cloning, genetic modification, and medical research on human stem cells.

Though he never returned, he retained a lifelong love of New Zealand.

He later said he always regarded himself as a New Zealander and regarded his years in Wellington - "living in paradise" - as the happiest of his life.

In an interview in 1997, eight years before his death, Wilkins broke down and cried when asked if he would like more recognition from the country he was born in.

He needn't have worried: New Zealand's leading institute for molecular biodiscovery - and whose research is breaking new ground in areas ranging from obesity to cancer - is better known as the Maurice Wilkins Centre.

1974: China visit transforms our kiwifruit industry

Gold kiwifruit are today a major export product for New Zealand. Photo / File
Gold kiwifruit are today a major export product for New Zealand. Photo / File

Behind the Gold kiwifruit we find on supermarket shelves is an interesting tale of science.

By 1974, New Zealand growers had been exporting kiwifruit to the US for two decades.

When exports had first begun, in the thick of the Cold War, the US hadn't been warm to the name "Chinese Gooseberries" - neither did it receive well the name "melonettes" given high import tariffs on melons - so "kiwifruit" was picked.

But, when China was emerging from the Cultural Revolution in the mid 1970s, there came an opportunity to forge a new link between the fruit's major exporter and its native country.

An invitation by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, extended to the Royal Society of New Zealand, proved one of the first moves made by the Chinese to re-establish contacts with Western scientific organisations.

Delegation member and renowned plant physiologist Ted Bollard tried to make contact with Professor Li Lairong, who he'd met in Mt Albert during World War II.

Unsuccessful at first, Bollard eventually made contact with Li and received what was one of the first kiwifruit seed batches to come to New Zealand since its 1904 introduction.

Two years later, respected DSIR fruit researcher Dr Don McKenzie arranged further lots of seed to be brought back.

As a result of these visits, and a further trip by scientists in 1981, Kiwi researchers had the raw germplasm that would ultimately become the yellow-fleshed kiwifruit, Hort16A, marketed as Zespri Gold.

The variety was ravaged by the kiwifruit-killing disease Psa-V and replaced by a new cultivar, Zespri Sungold.

As for Bollard and Li, their enormous achievements were both recognised by each other's countries; Li being made an honorary fellow of the Royal Society in 1979, and Bollard being appointed in 1980 to a guest academic role with China's Fukien Institute of Subtropical Botany.

1981: Cosmology's bright star dies at 40

New Zealand cosmologist Beatrice Tinsley. Photo / File
New Zealand cosmologist Beatrice Tinsley. Photo / File

Beatrice Tinsley, an influential cosmologist and one-time Dux of New Plymouth Girls' High School, was a shining star of science that burnt out too soon.

A graduate of Canterbury University who went on to become the first female professor of astronomy at Yale University, Tinsley's life's work centred on the formation and evolution of galaxies.

After relocating to Dallas, Texas, in the early 1960s, Tinsley began a stellar career that gave successive scientists the basis of how galaxies develop and change over time.

Her galaxy models enabled scientists to visualise infant galaxies, and her studies grappled with theories over whether the universe had boundaries or was limitless.

When Tinsley died of cancer at age 40 on March 23, 1981, her last paper had been submitted to the Astrophysical Journal only 10 days earlier; it was published posthumously, without revision.

Her many tributes have included the Beatrice M Tinsley Prize awarded by the American Astronomical Society; a professorship at the University of Texas Austin; a street in Auckland's North Shore and a mountain in Fiordland; and a minor planet discovered by Mt John Observatory near Tekapo.

On January 27 last year, the 75th anniversary of her birth, Google also published a Doodle to honour her work.

Her greatest legacy: the way we see our universe today.

1985: Imagining NZ's nuclear winter

The Royal Society's report on the threat of nuclear war to New Zealand. Photo / Supplied
The Royal Society's report on the threat of nuclear war to New Zealand. Photo / Supplied

Sugar, fluoridation, gene editing, climate change, pest management, earthquakes.

The Royal Society regularly wades into the big issues facing the country to offer crucial scientific context.

One of the oddest topics the society may have assigned itself was a "New Zealand perspective" on the threat of nuclear war.

Flash-back to the early to mid 1980s, when Cold War hostilities were ramping up - and the new Labour government's bold "no nukes" policy made the subject a big talking point in the country.

In his new book chronicling the society's history, Illuminating our World: 150 Years of the Royal Society Te Aparangi, author John E Martin writes how the society felt obligated to give a balanced, objective description of the threat - something the International Council for Science had urged scientists to work toward reducing.

The society's description of what a nuclear blast in Wellington would look like. Photo / Supplied
The society's description of what a nuclear blast in Wellington would look like. Photo / Supplied

An ad hoc committee discussing the effects of nuclear war was formed, culminating in a report launched in 1985 by Prime Minister David Lange, and which was eventually printed 2500 times.

Inevitably, the grim subject matter made good fodder for humourists.

Martin recalled Listener writer Denis Welch's facetious shorthand diary entry on Lange's travels: "To Royal Society gathering in quiet Wellington street ... Royal Society not club for collectors of Woman's Weekly covers, but bunch of brainy scientists ... Splendid title. Compulsively readable. Full of exciting diagrams showing effect of nuclear warhead dropped on Prime Ministerial limo in quiet Wellington street."

2000: NZ's third Nobel winner revolutionises electronics

Nobel Prize winning scientist Professor Alan MacDiarmid. Photo / File
Nobel Prize winning scientist Professor Alan MacDiarmid. Photo / File

LED flatscreen TVs are found in most living rooms today.

But back when the late Professor Alan MacDiarmid won a Nobel Prize for creating plastics which can conduct electricity, we were all still watching tube boxes.

In 2000, MacDiarmid jointly won the prize for helping create conducting polymers which could be used, among other things, for organic light-emitting diodes (OLED).

Sir Paul Callaghan rightly predicted that LED technology would replace liquid crystal and plasma tube displays.

The discovery that a thin film of polyacetylene could be oxidised with iodine vapour, increasing its electrical conductivity a billion times, made it possible for plastics to be used to reduce static electricity and interference on photographic film and computer screens.

The plastics were also used in the development of new colour television screens and "smart windows" that reflect sunlight.

MacDiarmid's Nobel Prize for Chemistry - won jointly with Alan Heeger and Hideki Shirakawa - was the third won by a New Zealander, after Sir Ernest Rutherford and Maurice Wilkins.

He was 73 at the time he received the honour - but still working 12-hour days and travelling frequently to work on research projects around the globe.

While based for most of his life at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Masterton-born MacDiarmid kept in close contact with his family in New Zealand; before he died in 2007, he'd been planning a visit.

2016: More diversity among society's ranks

Dr Nicola Gaston, former president of the New Zealand Association of Scientists, said an increase in diversity among the Royal Society's fellowship was a first step. Photo / File
Dr Nicola Gaston, former president of the New Zealand Association of Scientists, said an increase in diversity among the Royal Society's fellowship was a first step. Photo / File

Amid growing concern around a lack of diversity in science - and particularly with struggles still faced by female scientists today - the Royal Society last year announced that just over half of its newly inducted fellows were women.

At the time, the society's academy chairman and vice-president, Distinguished Professor Gaven Martin, acknowledged that to date, university academics, men and people of European descent had been over-represented in the fellowship, now numbering about 400.

Martin said the society had sought to address the problem by encouraging a more diverse pool of candidates for nomination.

The 19 new fellows included 10 women, and also reflected an improved mix of ethnicities and research fields, with two from Crown research institutes, one from the private sector, two with Maori ethnicity and one with Asian ethnicity.

The intake also included the first female mathematician to be made a fellow, Professor Hinke Osinga from the University of Auckland.

But the new intake still only meant the proportion of female fellows increased from 10.5 per cent to just 12.5 per cent.

However, Associate Professor Nicola Gaston, a former president of the New Zealand Association of Scientists who recently published a book on sexism in science, noted at the time that it was clear and "hugely important" that reconsideration of systematic biases in the system had led to positive outcomes.

"It is also clear - from the overall representation of women and other under-represented groups - that this is only a first step."

To mark its 150th anniversary, the Royal Society of New Zealand Te Aparangi has organised a large programme of events and activities over the six months leading up to October 10, the day legislation was signed establishing the New Zealand Institute, its former name. More information can be found about the events here.