100 years of physics

In 2010 the School of Chemical and Physical Sciences celebrated 100 years of Physics at Victoria University of Wellington.

Dan Thompson, (past administrator, now at the Research development office) commented, "the whole thing began toward the end of last year when Dr Ron Rosen, formerly of the University of Melbourne, contacted John Spencer to see whether or not we had any information detailing the history of physics at Victoria University of Wellington. Ron had been a technician at the University in the 1950s. Coincidentally, I'd recently stumbled upon a box of old documents containing the minutes of the Victoria University of Wellington council meetings from the early 1900s and discovered that a dedicated physics lab had opened here in 1910.

The chance to celebrate this important milestone in our School’s history was too good to pass up. We decided to compile the resulting research, as well as the photographs and news clippings, into a souvenir booklet. Something I hope Dr Rosen will be pleased with."

Around 200 people attended the event. Many were contacted personally through the efforts of David Gilmour (then a technician in the School, now retired) who searched for past students using a list of MSc and PhD theses dating from the 1960s. "I was thrilled to be able to contact so many people about the event. It took a lot of effort to track some of them down – some I haven't seen in 40 years."

Physics demonstration
Secrets of the Universe: Elf, a Physics PhD student, explains how we know what stars are made of.

The evening began with physics demonstrations arranged by staff and students, and was followed by talks from Professor Denis Sullivan, Post Doctoral Fellow Dr Pauline Harris, Special guests included Darcy Walker who was appointed Head of Physics in 1955, David Beaglehole who, in 1969, became the School’s first condensed matter physicist and nuclear physicist Warwick Darcey, Head from 1987- 1991. Also attending were Noel Chapman, the first Head of Physics after Darcy Walker's retirement and former staff, nuclear physicist Peter Johnson and geophysicist Tim Shirtcliffe.

Prof Norman Barber, a theoretical physicist at Victoria University of Wellington from 1965 till the early 70s, was represented by his family, including grandchildren Jacqui and Felix Kane-Barber, who were both students in the School at the time of the event.

Other attendees included current staff and students and past students who now have careers at local secondary schools, Crown Research Institutes and in business.

In his introduction the Vice-Chancellor, Pat Walsh commented that in the first 70 years, the Department was led by a succession of only 5 professors. Prof Denis Sullivan, who himself has been part of the School for more than 40 years, noted "Physics at the University is in very good shape and it's tremendous to be part of it." Prof Sir Paul Callaghan told how he followed his elder brother Jim to the University to study physics but it was his encounter with Norman Barber that "set him alight". He also named David Beaglehole as a inspiration for commercialising his science. Beaglehole retired early to set up his own company, Beaglehole Instruments. Prof Callaghan set up Magritek in 2004 to commercialise his group's NMR technologies.

Technical staff have played a significant role in supporting the teaching and research over the years and were well represented at the event. Of particular note was Les Kayes who worked in the physics workshop in the Hunter Building from 1956 to 1993. "I was an engineer at sea, but I took this job as a fill in for a while, and never left. To begin we were a mechanical workshop, but we did more and more to support the teaching laboratories as time went on."

John Spencer
Spin Doctor: Prof. John Spencer exchanges angular momentum with a bicycle wheel.

Physics demonstrations, enthusiastically led by staff and students, followed the refreshments and a guided tours of laboratory facilities in both the Laby and Alan MacDiarmid Buildings.

Click the links below for more about the event: