Men and Women in History: Exploration and Scientific Discoveries

Throughout history, the greatest scientific minds have not only demystified the world with their discoveries, but helped shape how we live in it.The same can be said about those brave individuals who had the spirit of adventure and decided to explore the unknown.

This seminar series examines the lives and achievements of influential scientists and explorers in history who, often in the face of extreme scepticism or worse, have striven and succeeded in pushing back the geographical and scientific boundaries of human knowledge and understanding.

Tuesday 10 May

Robert Falcon Scott ‘Scott of the Antarctic’ 

Presented by Dr Clive Evans 

A brief introduction to the early life of Robert Falcon Scott will be followed  by coverage and analysis of his two trips south, and an examination of his relationships with individuals such as Clements Markham, Ernest Shackleton and Roald Amundsen. Particular emphasis will be placed on an analysis of his final polar journey, which saw his elevation – in death – to that of a popular hero. In the years since his death, “Scott the hero” has been debunked and revived by numerous authors, but the heroic image persists. What makes a hero? Is Scott worthy of hero status or have we been shielded from his true character?

About the presenter

Clive Evans is a biologist with a special interest in Antarctic history and science. He has visited Antarctica on numerous occasions and has lectured widely on Antarctic themes.

Tuesday 17 May

Annie Jump Cannon, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin and Meghnad Saha

Presented by Dr JJ Eldridge
MA, MSci, PhD (Cambridge, FRAS, MInstP

Today we know that the stars are other Suns and that our Sun is just another star, and that they and the Universe are made mostly of hydrogen and helium. However it was early in the 20th century that scientists first began to systematically understand the stars. In this session will focus on three scientists who each supplied a key part of the puzzle. The story begins with Annie Jump Cannon attempting to classify stars into stellar types and understanding the physical reason for stars’ having different spectra. It continues with Meghnad Saha working on the quantum mechanics of gases at high temperatures, results that first indicate that a star’s type is determined by its surface temperature. Then they are used by Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin to reveal that the Sun and stars are not made of the same composition of the Earth but they and the Universe are made predominantly of hydrogen.

Annie Jump Cannon  was an American astronomer whose cataloging work was instrumental in the development of contemporary stellar classification. With Edward C. Pickering, she is credited with the creation of the Harvard Classification Scheme, which was the first serious attempt to organize and classify stars based on their temperatures. She was nearly deaf throughout her career. Cannon’s determination and hard work saw her classify more stars in a lifetime than anyone else, with a total of around 500,000 stars. She also discovered 300 variable stars, five novas, and one spectroscopic binary, creating a bibliography that included about 200,000 references. Cannon could classify three stars a minute just by looking at their spectral patterns and, if using a magnifying glass, could classify stars down to the ninth magnitude, around 16 times fainter than the human eye can see

Cecilia Helena Payne-Gaposchkin was a British–American astronomer and astrophysicist who, in 1925, proposed in her Ph.D. thesis an explanation for the composition of stars in terms of the relative abundances of hydrogen and helium. After her doctorate, Payne studied stars of high luminosity in order to understand the structure of the Milky Way. Later she surveyed all the stars brighter than the tenth magnitude. She then studied variable stars, making over 1,250,000 observations with her assistants. This work later was extended to the Magellanic Clouds, adding a further 2,000,000 observations of variable stars. These data were used to determine the paths of stellar evolution. Her observations and analysis, with her husband, of variable stars laid the basis for all subsequent work on them.

Meghnad Saha was an Indian astrophysicist best known for his development of the Saha equation, used to describe chemical and physical conditions in stars.This equation is one of the basic tools for interpretation of the spectra of stars in astrophysics. By studying the spectra of various stars, one can find their temperature and from that, using Saha’s equation, determine the ionisation state of the various elements making up the star. Meghnad was a professor at Allahabad University from 1923 to 1938, and thereafter a professor and Dean of the Faculty of Science at the University of Calcutta until his death in 1956. He became Fellow of the Royal Society in 1927 and was president of the 21st session of the Indian Science Congress in 1934.

About the presenter

JJ was appointed as a Lecturer of Astrophysics at The University of Auckland in 2011. JJ’s research is mainly focussed upon the evolution of stars, especially binary stars. They create numerical models of stars and then compare them to a broad range of observations. These include supernovae and their progenitors, long & short GRBs, gravitational waves and stellar populations.

In addition to my research activities JJ is also keen to participate in public understanding of science activities and gives public talks not just on their research but also how accurate science-fiction can be with titles such as: “The Science of Sci-Fi: does every planet look just like home?”

Tuesday 24 May

Beatrice Tinsley — Galactic Astronomer

Presented by Dr Nicholas Rattenbury

In this session Nicolas will introduce participants to British-born New Zealand astronomer and cosmologist Beatrice Tinsley, whose research made fundamental contributions to the astronomical understanding of how galaxies evolve, grow and die.

About the presenter

Dr Nicholas Rattenbury is a Royal Society of New Zealand Rutherford Discovery Fellow. He completed his PhD in Physics at the University of Auckland and shortly thereafter left to do post-doctoral research at Jodrell Bank Observatory, The University of Manchester. After nearly five years of research, he has worked for several years as a trainee patent attorney before returning to academia at Manchester Metropolitan University. As an RDF, Nicholas has returned to New Zealand to continue his research in astrophysics.

Tuesday 31 May

Artificial Intelligence

Presented by Ian Watson
BSc, M.Phil, MSc, PhD


Throughout his career Alan Turing was intrigued by the operation of the human brain. In 1950 he published a paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” that is widely regarded as the foundation of the field of Artificial Intelligence. This session will discuss the concept of intelligence and Turning’s exploratory work of the human brain that continues to be inspirational in the present day.