Sunday Star Times: Mysteries of our universe

Adam Dudding writes in the Sunday Star Times about New Zealand scientist Peter Schwerdtfeger, who was recently awarded the prestigious Humboldt prize, in recognition of his work in theoretical physics and chemistry.

Schwerdtfeger, who is currently based at the Auckland campus of Massey University, investigates chemical reactions at the level of individual atoms, and is an advocate of pure research.

An excerpt: (read in full here)

“Schwerdtfeger, 55, supervises six post-doctoral researchers and a PhD student and is an unabashed champion of pure research, believing the current pressure on science departments to create high-tech startup companies rather than focus on basic research “does some real damage to the academic world”.

“Yet his pointy-headed studies in the polysyllabic jungle of “heterogeneous catalytic processes” and “electroweak interactions” still have connections to an extraordinary range of potential future technologies, from methods for finding new Alzheimer drugs to reducing the global warming effect of New Zealand’s burping cows, or even – one day – to ways to filter the methane out of gassy coal mines, reducing the chance of tragedies such as the Pike River Coal mine disaster.

“Underpinning all of these is Schwerdtfeger’s investigations in the fuzzy area between physics and chemistry. He is expert at running extremely precise computer models of chemical reactions at the level of individual atoms, enlisting not only the quantum equations that describe the weird indeterminacy of the subatomic world, but also Einstein’s relativistic equations that describe the weirdness of objects moving at high velocities.”