The great scientific minds we lost in 2021


Dr Michael Corballis of the University of Auckland believed that

Phil Doyle / Tips

Dr Michael Corballis of the University of Auckland believed that “universities should be dangerous places”.

OPINION: The last time I spoke to Michael Corballis in July, he was embroiled in controversy over a letter he and some colleagues had published in the New Zealand auditor.

Corballis, the internationally renowned cognitive scientist who has contributed more than 400 scientific papers during his illustrious career, has never been one to hesitate to argue. In Adventures of a psychologist, published earlier this year, he wrote that intellectually, “universities should be dangerous places … where religion meets atheism, business meets philosophy, universalism meets nationalism.”

The University of Auckland professor emeritus applied this philosophy to his own research, which ranged from the exploration of brain asymmetry to the evolution of language. A true critical thinker, he helped broaden our understanding of the mind and died in October of a brief illness at the age of 85. Corballis was just a scientist as we bid farewell in 2021.

Another was mathematician Mary Fama, who came to New Zealand from Britain after World War II at the age of 10 and continued her education at Canterbury, Harvard and Oxford. Through a long association with the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) and its Australian equivalent, CSIRO, Fama has applied the mathematical process of finite element analysis to improve the design and safety of coal mines. She was 82 years old.

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DSIR Fellow George B. Petersen, 88, has devoted much of his career to understanding DNA and developing genetic tools and genome sequencing tools to advance knowledge of microbial genetics, plant, animal and human. He worked with Nobel Laureate Fred Sanger to sequence the first large genome of viral DNA and is considered the first key figure in DNA sequencing in New Zealand.

Auckland-born scientist Una Vivienne Cassie-Cooper, 94, has had a prolific research career spanning eight decades. An algae expert Cassie-Cooper conducted New Zealand’s first marine phytoplankton survey and 19 of her 59 scientific papers were published after her “retirement.”

Another Aucklander, Alan Maxwell, 94, was a pioneer in the detection of radio waves from sunspots. His 1949 thesis was the first in the field of radio astronomy in the Physics Department at the University of Auckland. He then set up a radio astronomy station for Harvard University in Fort Davis, Texas. He died in San Diego.

John Buckingham, 84, was one of our best military scientists. He applied science and technology to our national security interests in a way that is probably still classified as state secrets. He headed the Defense Technology Agency from 1987 to 2005.

Stuff science columnist Peter Griffin.


Stuff science columnist Peter Griffin.

The international scientific community has also lost a number of bright stars this year. They include Aaron Beck, 100, who has developed cognitive therapy; Edmond Fischer, 101, the Nobel Prize winner who discovered how cells speak; Helen Murray Free, 98, a chemist who developed a test for diabetes; Chad Kalepa Baybayan, 64, an authority in celestial navigation; Nobel laureate Isamu Akasaki, 92, who developed LED lighting; Muriel Lezak, 94, leading brain injury researcher; and Paul Crutzen, 88, who called our time the Anthropocene.

“We will all die”, wrote Fight club author Chuck Palahniuk.

“The point is not to live forever, the point is to create something that will.”

The great minds we lost in 2021 certainly did that.

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