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Hudson Lecture 1998 


Hudson Lecture: High Temperature Superconductors - Daybreak on a Sunrise Technology?
Presented by the 1998 Hudson Lecturer, Dr Jeff Tallon FRSNZ
James Cook Fellow
Industrial Research Ltd., P.O. Box 31310, Lower Hutt.
26 August 1998 at Science House
Royal Society of New Zealand

I want to thank Science Wellington for this award and the invitation to present this Hudson Lecture which I have entitled High temperature superconductors - daybreak on a sunrise technology?" The title comes from my optimistic personality and the question mark from necessary scientific conservatism.

Firstly, I want to acknowledge that my work has been part of a much wider team effort not just with my colleagues at IRL and Victoria University but many others abroad particularly at Cambridge University and Max Planck Institute for Condensed Matter Physics in Stuttgart.

Secondly, I fear it is a case of honouring the messenger on account of the message. The message is indeed an enthralling one. The occurrence of superconductivity is one of the most astounding physical effects the researcher might encounter. Most people are aware, to one degree or another, of the importance of quantum physics at the microscopic or atomic level but in superconductivity the quantum world impacts on the everyday scale of the human world: a single quantum state extends throughout the body of the superconductor, whether it be a single crystal, a polycrystalline pellet or even a wire which may be many kilometers long. In each case, when cooled below a critical temperature the electrical resistance falls abruptly to zero and the object becomes a "perfect conductor". It conducts electricity with no energy loss!

But we are gathered also to honour George Vernon Hudson FRSNZ, entomologist, and astronomer extraordinaire. Many who know me will think that I have no connection with insects. I place before you US Patent 5,027,546 for "A non-toxic method of exterminating insects" filed by inventor J Tallon just two years after we began our HTS research. You will see that liquid nitrogen is the non-toxic killing agent. Given that we were working day in, day out with liquid nitrogen plus some lateral thinking this invention is natural consequence: the dawn of a new age of extermination technology! Unfortunately this was a little too lateral for us and the inventor in this case is one Joseph Tallon of Redondo Beach, California. The only link between Hudson's work as an entomologist and my work on superconductivity is that we have shared the same passion for scientific discovery and the same desire to communicate the wonders of the created world as seen through our separate disciplines. Hudson was a remarkable individual who, at the age of 13 while still in London, published his first paper in The Entomologist. A year later his family emigrated to New Zealand settling first in Nelson and later in Wellington. His first scientific paper on New Zealand insects was published at the age of 15 in the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute and he became a member of the Wellington Philosophical Society, the forerunner of Science Wellington, at just 18 years of age. Thus began 61 years of association with the Society of which he was President in 1990, 1901 and 1940. He is of course best known for his great work "The Butterflies and Moths of New Zealand" illustrated by his own exquisite coloured figures which, along with those from his other books, totalled more than 3000. Hudson also had a great interest in astronomy. In 1918 he discovered a new star Nova Aquilae and was the original advocate of "Daylight Saving" now of course adopted worldwide. Around the age of 13 he made notes on a solar eclipse and from his observatory in Karori studied several subsequent eclipses, sunspots and stars. Let me digress for a moment to illustrate the ease of imaging the sun during an eclipse event

This illustration nicely merges our twin themes of Hudson and "sunrise technologies". It is also a very good example of "table-top" physics.

In these ideological days of Outcomes, Relevance, the Foresight Initiative and Future Pull it is instructive to look back to the New Zealand Institute as it was in the early days of Hudson and his contemporaries. The New Zealand Institute, the predecessor of the Royal Society of New Zealand, was inaugurated 130 years ago this month. At the time a list of desirable subjects for investigation was circulated amongst members, including:

It is patently obvious that the outlook of the early scientists was to assemble their intellectual and scientific resources for the benefit of the Colony. Today the clarion call of science policy is the need for Relevance in Science as though it were a novel concept. For all the restructuring and brewing of new ideology the fundamental objective of advancing the public good threads a common strand through the history of our various scientific institutions: the New Zealand Society, the Colonial Laboratory, the New Zealand Institute, The Royal Society of New Zealand, the DSIR and the Crown Research Institutes. The apparent assumption in the present climate is that if left for a moment to itself the medium of science and technology will be hijacked by its practitioners for their own indulgence. The huge impact of RS&T on New Zealand wealth and welfare in all sectors speaks otherwise. Politicians need to trust our scientists more and return to them a part of the decision making in determining and prioritising research programmes. The CRIs are far better placed than PGSF Committees to decide which programmes should grow and which should diminish and over what timescale. It takes years to train a scientist in one area and one cannot instantly lurch across to a new programme when a current programme is abruptly terminated by the PGSF process. There needs to be some degree of return to core funding. It worked in the past.

The second issue I want to pick up on is one of culture and perception of the status of science. The New Zealand Society in 1851 then the New Zealand Institute in 1868 were established through the sponsorship of Sir George Grey, Governor of New Zealand. The first President of the Institute was the succeeding Governor, Sir George Fergusson Bowen. The Council comprised amongst others the Colonial Secretary and Featherston the Superintendent of Wellington. At the inaugural meeting his Excellency referred to "the presence of so many members of the legislature while an important debate was in progress in the House of Representatives, as a proof that the attractions of science could even triumph over the excitement of politics". The Wellington Philosophical Society had as its President Sir George Grey and Vice Presidents, the Superintendent of Wellington and the Bishop of Wellington. Why is it that in a day when science and technology made relatively much less impact on the daily lives of the people of New Zealand that the status of science was so elevated? In the present climate of ongoing declining funding in real terms, low salaries, short-term contracts and career uncertainty one is conscious of a fundamental, possibly irretrievable culture shift that bodes ill for New Zealand's future as a modern innovative Western economy.

At the same time our superconductivity programme and many, many other research programmes in New Zealand provide ample evidence that with proper resources we can compete internationally with the best

In closing let me say that all of this illustrates that science moves partly incrementally and partly in unexpected leaps. J J Thomson said "Applied research provides evolutionary development but basic science provides revolutionary development". Incremental, evolutionary science can be planned; the science of discovery that moves in quantum leaps cannot be predicted or planned. "Foresight" provides an archetype of future-pull, the notion that we can imagine our future scenarios and needs and work now through our research to realise those scenarios and meet those anticipated needs. But the nature of research is that we do not know what some of the outcomes will be. A balance is therefore essential between basic science and applied science, between structured, goal-oriented research and undirected blue-skies research. This has been recognised and honoured throughout the splendid history of our various scientific institutions. It is my hope that today's policy-makers will likewise understand these twin facets of this great adventure in the exploration and harnessing of the mysteries of Nature.

Thank you.


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