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Wellington mathematician awarded Rutherford Medal

The Rutherford Medal, the top award at this year’s Research Honours Aotearoa, was awarded last night to Professor Rod Downey FRSNZ for his revolutionary research into mathematical logic and computer science.

Mathematician Rod Downey. Photo by Victoria University of Wellington

Research Honours Aotearoa, hosted by Royal Society Te Apārangi, celebrated the achievements of New Zealand researchers, scholars and innovators, with 21 medals and awards presented by the Society, with three awards from the Health Research Council of New Zealand.

The Rutherford Medal is the highest honour awarded by the Society for an exceptional contribution to advancing and promoting knowledge for the benefit of New Zealand.

Rod Downey is an internationally recognised logician known for his research into computability—how can mathematical processes be algorithmically implemented either in theory or practice — and the study of randomness.

He said he was “honoured and somewhat startled” to receive the Rutherford Medal, especially since mathematician and Fields Medal winner Sir Vaughan Jones FRS Hon FRSNZ was the first recipient of it. “The mathematical landscape in New Zealand is truly vibrant,” he said.

He said that an algorithm is like a recipe.

“A good cake recipe would be one that makes a good cake. Mathematically a good algorithm would be one that uses less resources, runs faster and uses less memory.”

He was presented the medal by the Governor-General, Her Excellency Dame Patsy Reddy, and receives $100,000 from the government.

A number of other Wellington scientists and researchers received awards from the Royal Society Te Apārangi.

Professor Downey’s VUW colleague at the School of Mathematics and Statistics, mathematical physicist Professor Matt Visser FRSNZ, was awarded the Hector Medal for his research into both classical and quantum gravity, including work on black holes, cosmology and “analogue spacetimes”.

Professor Brett Delahunt ONZM FRSNZ, an internationally recognised pathologist from the University of Otago, Wellington, has been awarded the Hercus Medal for his research on prostate and kidney cancer. His scientific work and insight have been central to the development of an internationally-accepted classification system of important prognostic markers for prostate and renal cancers.

Dr Arini Loader (Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Whakaue, Te Whānau-a-Apanui) of Victoria University of Wellington was awarded the inaugural Te Kōpūnui Māori Research Award, which recognises innovative Māori research by promising early career researchers. She won the award for pushing the boundaries of Māori Studies by incorporating history, te reo Māori and literary studies into her research, and has been unlocking the context behind historical texts written in te reo Māori to provide a better understanding of 19th Century Māori society and our history.

Lettie Roach, a PhD student at NIWA/ Victoria University of Wellington, has been awarded the Hatherton Award for her scientific paper that outlines a new global model for sea ice flow sizes. This new model takes into account changing floe sizes, both on the surface and the thickness of the floe, and has the potential to make significant improvements to the simulation of polar regions in global climate models.

Dr Carwyn Jones (Ngāti Kahungunu), Victoria University of Wellington, has received the Early Career Research Excellence Award for Humanities for his ground-breaking book New Treaty, New Tradition. It reveals new ways of using indigenous knowledge to understand how law shapes society.

A full list of award winners can be found on the website of Royal Society Te Apārangi.