Presidential Address Some Modern Problems in Science
By L. H. Briggs
The modern student approaching research work for the first time is faced with a more exciting future than ever before Perhaps he has to have a longer training, or has to be more skilled in modern techniques, but the vistas of research are wider than ever. Far from the increase of knowledge in a subject limiting the avenues of research, it is more like a climber reaching the top of the foothills only to see range upon range of unexplored areas yet before him.
In physics, nuclear research is still relatively in its infancy. In my time as a student we were quite happy to think of atoms being composed of two elementary particles, the electron and the proton. Today, the research physicist has to deal with neutrons, positrons, various types of mesons, V particles, etc, exceeding 20 in all. But even with this relatively undeveloped knowledge in a new field the achievements to date have been spectacular, beyond the wildest dreams of the pre-war physicists.
The public has long been fed with pictures of physicists seeking to build bigger and better atomic bombs, but more emphasis should be placed on educating the public to the peaceful uses of atomic energy. Perhaps Great Britain has taken the lead in this respect and it has been recently announced that Great Britain is now assured of future power supplies as a result of its application of nuclear energy. In America, the first industrial nuclear pile is already in operation.
New Zealand, a t the moment, is relying on hydro-electricity and coal for its main power supplies, with geothermal power under investigation. The use in New Zealand of nuclear energy, perhaps from its own recently discovered uranium supplies, would prevent the destruction of some of our scenic gems such as the Huka Falls and the Aratiatia Rapids in the North Island, and Lake Manapouri in the South Island. These beauty spots should be preserved or action deferred until the full scope of nuclear power is investigated. The recent decision of the Government to establish an Institute of Nuclear Research will pave the way for the introduction of nuclear power into New Zealand.
The Royal Society for some years has been endeavouring to establish a Fuel and Power Advisory Committee, but the Government has declined to take any action and has preferred to take advice solely from its own departmental officers.
Geophysics has developed so rapidly in recent years that in 1951 a Geophysics Division of the D.S.I.R was established to prosecute research in the atmosphere, the earth and the ocean.
At the moment New Zealand is actively taking its share of research for the International Geophysical Year. In a report presented to the Council today, Dr. Barnett has indicated that preparations have been completed for New Zealand's co-operation in this scheme commencing on July 1. Research will be carried out in New Zealand, Antarctica, and the Pacific Islands. Overall this is the most ambitious assay at international scientific co-operation ever organised.
The National Committee for the International Geophysical Year of the Royal Society of New Zealand, in association with the Interdepartmental Committee for the International Geophysical Year of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, has recently published the programme to be attempted by New Zealand scientists. What an array of research topics for the physicist as it includes problems in geodesy, tectonophysics, seismology, vulcanology, hydrology, oceanography, meteorology, climatology, glaciology, geomagnetism, geo-electricity, and the physics of the mesosphere, ionosphere and aurora!
The work in Antarctica will be supplemented by biological research carried out under the aegis of the Ross Sea Committee and the New Zealand Trans-Antarctic Expedition led by Sir Edmund Hillary.
The propagation of radio waves, their reflection from the ionosphere and their modification on travelling through the auroral zone has been a rewarding study for Dr. Whale, the results of which have earned for him the Sidey Summer-time Medal and Prize.
The field of radio-astronomy so successfully pioneered in Australia as well as in England and America promises to develop into a subject as big as astronomy itself, perhaps the oldest of sciences. As yet, to my knowledge, no work in this field has commenced in New Zealand In radio-astronomy radio waves emitted by the stars themselves are measured, whose intensity is 10–100 times that observed by optical methods. Over 2,000 radio stars have now been plotted, some beyond the range of optical measurements. Those emitted from sun spots may be used in predicting storms.
The horizons of research in chemistry are no less broad than in physics. They range from the fundamental chemistry of matter, which brings it into the field of physics and mathematics, through what may be called the classical subject of chemistry, which is concerned with the constitution and reactions of chemical compounds, to the chemistry of biological processes involving the mystery of life itself.
In attacking chemical problems perhaps the greatest advance has been in the increased use of instrumentation Today, the research chemist has at least to know what results modern instruments can give him, even if he does not know exactly how to work them. A great deal of fundamental information can be obtained by using such instruments as the ultraviolet spectrophotometer, the infra-red spectrophotometer, the Raman spectrophotometer, and even finer points of structure may be obtained by the use of nuclear magnetic resonance absorption spectra and microwave spectra. The data of all these instruments may be obtained by the use of milligram quantities and results from such measurements often give a clear indication of the structure of the major part of the compound.
Finally, X-ray crystallography can give a complete picture of the molecule, based on measurements made on a single crystal. In the past, the final picture could only be obtained by long and tedious calculations, but today by the use of electronic computing machines, the results may be obtained within a very short time. One of the best modern examples of these combined techniques on a structural problem has been the elucidation of vitamin B12 by Sir Alexander Todd and his colleagues This compound, when first obtained, cost £40 a milligram and the elucidation of the structure by the old fashioned classical methods would have taken many years of work and a fortune of money. Today, very few chemical compounds of moderately complex nature are not amenable to solution in a relatively short time. This does not mean that the number of problems has been reduced, it merely sets our sights to bigger and more difficult problems.
In biology, the electron microscope may be used to magnify objects 100,000 times, so that viruses and chemical macromolecules can now be actually seen and photographed.
Many of these instruments are expensive and can only be obtained by institutions with large budget allocations. However, against their cost must be balanced the great saving of man-hours in the solution of the problem. Perhaps in New Zealand with our limited resources a central research department could be set up providing such services for the University, Government Research Institutions and industry.
At the moment we are just beginning to see the final solution to the structure of proteins, one of the most difficult fields in the whole of chemistry. The recent determination of the structure of the proteins, insulin, glucagone and oxytocin, very important in the regulation of some of our body functions, has shown the way to the solution of the whole problem.
Professors Sanger and du Vigneaud have deservedly won the Nobel Prize for their contributions in this field. The elucidation of the structures of the nucleotides,
including deoxyribonucleic acid, has opened up a tremendous field in providing a molecular basis for heredity.
Classical chemistry demands the use of strong acids and alkalis, heat and often pressure for the synthesis of a particular compound, which may, on the other hand, be synthesised naturally by an enzyme system without recourse to any of the above “bulldozer” methods. We have a long way to go in finding out how naturally occurring compounds are synthesised by enzymes, but as most of the latter are protein in nature, the recent success in solving the constitution of proteins greatly encourages scientists to prosecute this problem further. We are still only on the fringe of knowledge concerning the formation of compounds in the living cell and the mechanisms by which they are produced. Biological oxidations, however, are being increasingly used to bring about relatively simple changes in some part of a chemical molecule which could only be brought about synthetically by a long series of reactions. The complexity of the problem is well illustrated by the tubercle bacillus which is a simple one-celled organism and yet 400 compounds have been isolated from it, not counting the multitude of enzymes responsible for their formation.
The recent work on antibiotics emphasises the complexity of micro-organisms and the compounds which they produce In general, micro-organisms such as fungi, produce chemical compounds much more complicated in structure than those produced by the higher plants, including our forest trees.
The chemistry of micro-organisms so far has been mainly concentrated on those organisms which produce antibiotics and large pharmaceutical firms are combing the world for new fungi or micro-organisms for new antibiotics. There is still left, however, the vast field of knowledge relating to the chemistry and pharmacology of all the other micro-organisms from which undoubtedly other important compounds will be isolated.
There is an increasing tendency for the application of basic science to the problems of human and animal disease Without developing this theme I should like to mention briefly the work being done in my own department on the chemotherapy of cancer. As most of you know the majority of New Zealand plants are endemic, and an endeavour is being made to find whether there are any plant constituents having a chemotherapeutic effect on cancer tumours. This work is still in its infancy, but the results to date are encouraging.
The public should be educated in the immense possibilities of the peaceful uses of atomic energy not only in physics but also in other sciences One by-product of nuclear research is the production of radio-active carbon which is the greatest tool so far invented for the investigation of organic reactions, particularly in biological materials. The presence of radio-active carbon in naturally occurring compounds has given rise to a new subject of radio-active carbon dating which is of inestimable value in geology, zoology, botany and anthropology in determining the date or origin of certain deposits of artifacts. Mr. Rafter has made an international name for himself in this field and we were very pleased to see his promotion to be Director of a new radio-active section of the D. S.I.R.
Two chemical problems of particular importance to New Zealand are those of geothermal power and iron-sands A great deal is known of the action of weak acids such as carbonic acid or hydrogen sulphide on metals such as iron. We have little knowledge, however, of the action of those weak acids at the high pressures and temperatures encountered under geothermal conditions on the steel pipes used to tap this new source of power I hope New Zealanders will be in the forefront of research in this new field.
Many attempts have been made to utilize the vast deposits of iron-sands on the west coast of New Zealand, and it would appear from the latest reports that success may now be in sight. Two large industrial firms are preparing to experiment on this material beyond the pilot scale stage. The successful exploitation of this material.
would ultimately affect the whole economy of the country. Originally investigated for their iron content, they may yet prove more valuable for their titanium, so useful today in modern aeroplane engines.
As I speak tonight there is being held in Greymouth a meeting convened by the Grey Valley Miners' Central Committee and the Westland District Progress League to examine a proposal to establish a £10 million calcium carbide industry on the West Coast. It has been estimated that a calcium carbide factory would cost £1 ¼ million to establish, £¼ million a year to operate, and provide products worth more than £600,000 a year. The industry will depend on coal and limestone, of which there are ample available stocks, and electric power.
The recent discovery of uranium in the West Coast and the consummation of the above scheme together present a very exciting future for this area.
Rachel Carson recently published her Ph.D. thesis under the title “The Sea Around Us”, which turned out to be one the best selling non-fiction books in the world. I have never read a book which has suggested more fields of research than this. There are problems for everybody and seeing that New Zealand is an island surrounded by the world's largest ocean, the latter must form a future treasure house for New Zealand scientists, be they geophysicists, botanists, zoologists, or chemists.
For geophysicists there are the problems of ocean currents, particularly those at great depths. Marine algae and seaweeds will still provide a useful field of research for the botanist.
New Zealanders in particular have been extremely interested in the fascinating discoveries by Professor Richardson and his colleagues of the marine life existing in the deep waters of Cook Strait. Much yet remains to be discovered and close at hand are even deeper waters, such as the Kermadec Deep, a still relatively unexplored area.
The introduction of the aqua-lung has given the more venturesome of our biologists a new tool for exploring at first hand marine growths and animals around our shores. Direct observational methods will undoubtedly lead to a better understanding of the life history of marine flora and fauna. Recently we collected marine growths on the inter-tidal surfaces of rocks only to find that many of them had not yet been identified. This is no reflection on the zoologists but an indication of the many problems which we have at our own door.
For the chemist the sea provides a still incompletely explored field of raw materials. The content of minerals is fantastically large. A cubic mile of sea contains 143,000,000 tons of sodium chloride, 5,000,000 tons of magnesium, and 300,000 tons of bromine, and a host of other metals in lesser amounts. Since there are three billion cubic miles of sea water the potential supply is staggering enough for all the peoples of the world, without worrying about national boundaries. New Zealand has already commenced to harvest salt from the sea at Lake Ellesmere, but both magnesium and bromine are manufactured from sea water in the U.S.A.
New Zealand seaweeds are already collected commercially for the production of agar-agar. Other varieties contain alginic acid which can be used for the preparation of synthetic fibres. Some of these can be made water soluble so that when woven with wool and then dissolved out the process forms a woollen material of gossamerlike thinness. I feel sure that further exploitation of this material could be made. Ten thousand tons are available each year from the Cook Strait area alone.
Professor Richardson has intimated the untouched supplies of fish at greater depths. In the future, with New Zealand's increasing population, perhaps an increasing use will have to be made of this potential food supply. At the moment, the production of crayfish for export is skyrocketing, and in 1955, 5,500 tons were marketed for a total value of £800,000.
New Zealand's wealth today still depends on the export of primary produce, wool, beef and mutton, hides, butter and cheese. The buoyancy of wool prices is.
reflected in the latest income returns—rather staggering to scientists to discover that nearly 4,000 sheepfarmers received incomes last year in excess of £4,000.
Despite this wealth there are still agricultural problems, the solution of which could bring still further wealth to the country. New Zealand has taken a leading part in discovering the effect of trace elements on agriculture. The effect of traces of cobalt in the cure of “bush-sickness” is well known to every farmer. Of the many problems which remain perhaps those of facial eczema, hydatids, bloat and hogget ill-thrift are the most important—each costing the country millions of pounds each year.
Having served on the Parliamentary Fact-Finding Committee on facial eczema I have come to realise how difficult the problem is and what a challenge it is for our scientists. There is scope in this research for a whole variety of scientists, pathologists, chemists, biochemists, microbiologists, and meteorologists.
It is of interest to know that the Medical Research Council has recently established a Hydatids Research Unit to try and wipe out this disease from the country— a disease which has cost many human lives as well as preventing the export of a valuable commodity, animal livers.
In another aspect of agriculture New Zealand has taken a world lead—that of aerial top-dressing. The aeroplane today is used for applying fertilizer, particularly for hill country. One half of the total production of superphosphate, amounting to over 400,000 tons, was distributed by air over about 4,000,000 acres in 1955, 350 tons of seed were sown by air, 4,600 tons of poisoned rabbit bait and 375,000 gallons of hormone spray. Practical methods have also been found for dropping fence posts and fencing wire in these less accessible places. It is estimated that over £10,000,000 is being expended each year in some form of agricultural aviation. With the advent of the helicopter these activities will no doubt be extended.
Problems face the forester both in regard to our indigenous forests and also our exotic forests.
One of the outstanding problems for our own natural forests is the method of regeneration. When we travel through the bush and see the multiplicity of species growing in profusion we little realise, until we attempt to grow native trees in our own gardens, how difficult some of them are to propagate and grow. It we could propagate and grow rimu like species of pines then some of our reforestation could be done with indigenous trees. There may easily be some chemical factors as well as botanical factors affecting the propagation.
There appear to be few problems in growing exotic trees, but there may be problems in maintaining the growth or retaining the species. In a mixed forest which has become stabilised, it would appear unlikely that any new invading organism could markedly or quickly affect the stability. In a stand of one species, however, there is a risk that an invading organism, once established, could seriously affect and finally overcome the host. Virus diseases of pines have already appeared, and it is hoped that the skill of our foresters will be able to keep these diseases from spreading. The study of the microflora and their relationship to the health of the forest trees could be rewarding to the microbiologist, while there are problems for the geneticist in the breeding of the best strains of forest species.
Only a passing reference will be made to medical services, but during the Fiftieth Jubilee of the Royal New Zealand Society for the Health of Women and Children, tribute should again be paid to the late Sir Truby King for his efforts in reducing infant mortality in New Zealand, now the lowest in the world.
One of the amazing things about some of our more recent discoveries has been their extreme simplicity and, what has occurred in the past may obviously occur again in the future. Thus there is still the prospect of making discoveries of techniques and reactions with the use of simple apparatus. Although there is a great tendency.
towards instrumentation or automation in research there is still room for the sealing wax and string experiments for which our own Lord Rutherford was perhaps the best example.
Most schoolboys are conversant with the experiment on the electrolysis of water into hydrogen and oxygen. By the simple expedient of determining the density of the water which is left, Urey was able to show the presence of heavy water and the deuterium isotope of hydrogen.
The technique of chromatography, used so extensively today in chemistry, was discovered by a Russian botanist by observing different coloured bands on pouring the solution of a plant extract down a column of inert material. This was followed by the discovery of an even more simple technique of paper chromatography which provided the key to the elucidation of the structures of many organic compounds, particularly of the proteins and polysaccharides. A further modification, vapour phase chromatography, enables a complete analysis of a mixture to be carried out on a single drop of liquid.
Another technique used extensively in chemistry related to the above, is the use of ion-exchange materials which was not discovered by any high powered research but by a technician in an industrial organisation.
Polythene or alkathene. the material used so widely today, but whose full potentiality is still not realised, is produced by the polymerisation of ethylene, one of the simplest of organic compounds, which was formerly burnt off as a useless by-product in the refinery of petroleum.
One of the finest examples in the biological field was the observation and interpretation of the dance of the bees by the Viennese scientist von Frisch. When his laboratory was destroyed during the war he made fundamental discoveries of great importance to the understanding of animal behaviour in interpreting the dance of the bees, the dance whereby one bee could communicate to the others the direction and distance of the honey supply. His equipment simply consisted of an experimental beehive with a glass slide, a few saucers, a little jam, some faithful students, and, last but not least, grey cells.
Next year, 1958, is the centenary of the publication of the “Origin of Species” by Charles Darwin. This epic book, which has had such a profound affect on the theory of evolution, and incidentally on religious beliefs, was the culmination of a life's work in the biological field. The initial inspiration, however, occurred during his visit to the Galapagos Islands during the voyage of the Beagle. It is to be hoped that the efforts of the Royal Society of London in conjunction with the Royal Society of New Zealand, Australian and South African scientific bodies, to celebrate the centenary with a similar voyage of discovery and observation, will be successful. At least the Royal Society of New Zealand is lending its wholehearted support.
I think the main inspiration of this book to the present generation of scientists is the fact that this new theory was worked out while he was a young man in his early twenties.
Who knows that there is a young scientist in the audience who will make just as important a discovery?