Victoria University of Wellington again wins top research honour

New Zealand’s most prestigious research honour, the Rutherford Medal, has been awarded for the second year in a row to an academic from Victoria University of Wellington.

Professor Rod Downey
Professor Rod Downey

Professor Rod Downey, who is internationally recognised for his revolutionary research into mathematical logic and computer science, was one of five Victoria University of Wellington staff to receive awards at Royal Society Te Apārangi’s 2018 New Zealand Research Honours ceremony.

In 2017, the Rutherford Medal—awarded for an exceptional contribution to advancing and promoting knowledge for the benefit of New Zealand—went to world-leading geologist Professor Colin Wilson from the University’s School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences.

The University’s School of Mathematics and Statistics was strongly represented in this year’s honours, with Professor Downey’s colleague Professor Matt Visser receiving the Hector Medal for outstanding work in chemical, physical sciences or mathematical and information sciences. Meanwhile, mathematical physicist Lettie Roach, who is studying for a PhD in the School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences and is based at NIWA, was joint recipient of the Hatherton Award for best PhD paper in chemical, physical sciences or mathematical and information sciences.

The University’s ground-breaking contributions to Māori research and the expanded worldview offered by mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) were also to the fore in the honours, with Dr Arini Loader (Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Whakaue, Te Whānau-a-Apanui) from its history programme receiving the Te Kōpūnui Māori Research Award in recognition of an early career researcher conducting innovative Māori research with a promising trajectory. Additionally, Dr Carwyn Jones (Ngāti Kahungunu) from the School of Law received the Early Career Research Excellence Award for Humanities for his book New Treaty, New Tradition: Reconciling New Zealand and Māori Law, which is published by Victoria University Press.

Professor Downey is a logician specialising in computability—the algorithmic implementation of mathematical processes in either theory or practice—and randomness.

He co-founded, with Professor Michael Fellows from the University of Bergen in Norway, a field of algorithm design called ‘parameterised complexity’, which has developed into an important new branch of theoretical computer science with its own international conferences, books and special issues of journals, and applications as varied as studying deafness in Aboriginal children in Australia and the effects of radiation on DNA.

Professor Downey also initiated a comprehensive development in the field of algorithmic randomness, publishing in 2010, with former Victoria University of Wellington postdoctoral fellow Professor Denis Hirschfeldt from the University of Chicago, an 880-page monograph on the topic, which provides a unifying treatment of several related but historically separate approaches to the question of what makes a sequence random. The book won the Shoenfield Prize for writing in logic.

He says he is “honoured and somewhat startled” to have received the Rutherford Medal.

“The first recipient of this award was the great Kiwi mathematician Sir Vaughan Jones after he won an international Fields Medal for most promising mathematicians under 40. Thus it is especially rewarding to receive this award as a mathematician and theoretical computer scientist.

“The mathematical landscape in New Zealand is truly vibrant, and this is particularly true at Victoria University of Wellington.”

Professor Visser was awarded the Hector Medal for his research into both classic and quantum gravity, including work on black holes and cosmology.

His research addresses foundational issues in Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity and its interface with quantum physics. He has published widely, is well known internationally, and presented a plenary talk at Professor Stephen Hawking’s 60th birthday conference at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom in 2002.

As well as praising his research outputs, the medal selection committee noted his exceptional supervision of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, saying: “He demonstrates an ability and a willingness to communicate the most difficult and fundamental ideas of modern mathematical physics in a clear and accessible way.”

Accepting the medal, Professor Visser paid tribute to his late parents, who were part of the 1950s Dutch migration to New Zealand. “They were not at all academic, with no education beyond high school, but they provided an amazing environment for me and my siblings to grow up in and they would have been very proud.”

Congratulating the University’s five award-winners, Vice-Chancellor Professor Grant Guilford says their success reflects the embedded culture of research excellence at New Zealand’s number one-ranked university for research quality.

“As a University committed to world-leading and world-changing research, we are honoured to have two successive Rutherford Medal winners in our community and to see Royal Society Te Apārangi’s recognition for not only three of our other academics but also one of our students.

“Our maths programme can be particularly proud, and so too can Dr Loader and Dr Jones, who are two of the University’s researchers at the forefront of expanding understanding of New Zealand and the wider world through mātauranga Māori.”