The closest thing to a Kiwi Nobel for now

New Zealand mathematician Roy Kerr was last night presented with the prestigious Crafoord Prize, basically the equivalent of a Nobel Prize, at a ceremony in Sweden.

Kerr, who is a sprightly 82, shared the prize with Stanford University theoretical astrophysicist Professor Roger Blandford. The prize for astronomy and mathematics (it rotates through certain disciplines year to year) comes with a cheque for the equivalent of around NZ$1 million which Roy and Roger will no doubt have split.

Roy Kerr (left) and Roger Blandford receive the Crafoord Prize from the King of Sweden in Stockholm today. Photo: Laura Pishief
Roy Kerr (left) and Roger Blandford receive the Crafoord Prize from the King of Sweden in Stockholm.  Photo: Laura Pishief

The Crafoord Prize is awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, not to be confused with the Swedish Academy, which award the Nobel Prizes. They also come with big cheques, the financial legacy of dynamite magnate Alfred Nobel.  The Swedish know how to do their prizes!

Roy Kerr is a legend in the astrophysics community. He predicted spinning black holes before they were discovered, coming up with the solution to Einstein’s equations. The study of black holes is really built on the work Kerr did in the 1960s, well before scientists had access to advanced computers that are now central to theoretical physics.

Just this month, Kerr was made a Distinguished Professor at the University of Canterbury, only the third person to have been honoured with the title in the university’s 143 year history.

So Roy Kerr goes down in history as one of our most distinguished scientists, even if it is for an area of research most of us can’t really understand. But the Crafoord, awarded since 1982, is not a Nobel. A Nobel is much more valuable when bragging about your country’s success in science.

On the Nobel front we do okay for a tiny country. We’ve had three – Ernest Rutherford (one of the Nobel big shots, used to hang out with Einstein, graces our $100 note), Maurice Wilkins (didn’t really have much to do with New Zealand after his move to the UK, overshadowed by Watson and Crick) and Alan MacDiarmid (all round nice guy and fondly remembered).

Our Nobel Laureates: Maurice Wilkins, Ernest Rutherford, Alan MacDiarmid
Our Nobel Laureates: Maurice Wilkins, Ernest Rutherford, Alan MacDiarmid

But it would be nice to think we’ve got another couple of Nobels in the pipeline. So who might they be? Whenever I ask people in the science sector for suggestions I get a common response – they pause for a long time and scrunch their face up, presumably racking their brain for potential candidates.

Then they say “hmmm,” and  tell me that another New Zealand Nobel is unlikely due to the changing nature of scientific research – more applied, less fundamental, that if and when we get another Nobel it will undoubtably involve another Kiwi expat who finds his or her way into a famous lab and the company of eminent scientists and hopefully remembers us when they are rich and famous.

Well, here’s hoping, but a Crafoord will do for now.



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