Professor Sir Ian Axford and the Cawthron lectures

Professor Sir Ian Axford and the Cawthron lectures

In March I read of the passing of Sir Ian Axford, a scientist who spent much of his working life outside New Zealand but nevertheless made a huge contribution to this country. I met him briefly when we invited him to present the annual “Cawthron Lecture” in 1996. It was the 75th anniversary of the official opening of Cawthron Institute.

To grab your attention, I’ve included a photograph of the present we gave Sir Ian that night. You may well think that’s a bit crass, but the story that goes with it is well worth telling. Here it is:

(c) Darryl Robertson


First though, Sir Ian’s lecture: “Our Understanding of the Solar System”.  Sir Ian was a very highly regarded space scientist and at the time was Director at the Max Planck Institute for Aeronomy.  Just a year before he had been named “New Zealander of the Year”. The Nelson School of Music, the usual venue for those lectures, had a capacity audience of 350 that night.  His lecture was just great. You will get the flavour of it from his preface to the published version, which I’ve included at the end of this post.

But now to the present, a painting on ceramic by Nelson artist and potter Darryl Robertson. I had been very impressed with Darryl’s work and approached him about the commission.  He was very interested. Much to my surprise, I learned that Darryl’s father had worked at the Cawthron Institute for many years. In fact much of Darryl’s pocket money throughout his schooldays had come from mowing the lawns in the Cawthron grounds. So he was very happy to take on the commission.

We were delighted with the result, as was Sir Ian.  Just in case it was to be taken to Germany, where Sir Ian still spent much of his time, there is a reminder of New Zealand in the form of the Southern Cross prominently displayed in the painting.

A couple of years later there was a sequel to this presentation. Our Prime Minister at the time, Jenny Shipley, visited Japan where she had an audience with the Emperor and a meeting with the Prime Minister. Guess what she gave the Emperor?  A painting on ceramic by Darryl Robertson!

From the Preface to Thomas Cawthron Memorial Lecture Number 54, May 1996  ” Our Understanding of the Solar System”:

“It has been a great honour and a pleasure for me to be invited to present the 1996 Cawthron lecture during the Cawthron Institute’s 75th anniversary year. The Founder of the Institute obviously had the best possible motivation, namely to contribute to the advancement of our knowledge and understanding of the world at large. I think he would have approved of the theme I have chosen for this lecture, namely the origin of our solar system and the development of our ideas concerning the place of the Earth and ourselves in the external Universe. Some of these ideas may appear rather bizarre according to our current understanding but they should be treated with respect, since they show us how we arrived at this point and remind us of the frailty of our thought and logic. It has been said of today’s theoretical astrophysicists that they are “often wrong but never in doubt”; the fact that this has always been and will continue to be the case should not be allowed to drift out of our thoughts. Both doubt and certainty can contribute to progress. ”

Note: the lecture was published and a hard copy or pdf file is available from the Cawthron Institute (they used to be freeware).

PS: the lectures are still going strong and they have now reached number 66 (see my earlier post).

2 comments

Hello Hello Graeme,
great to see your Blog rising from the computer screen.
I was very sorry to see the passing of Sir Ian Axford in your story, i was not aware of this.Thank you for the background story on him and where I fit into the Cawthron story.I think all of our family worked for the Cawthron Institute at some stage.My cousin Donna Harris working now !.

I really enjoyed your beautiful and artistic photography Graeme, I have had two viewing sessions but will be going back for more to read and take in what you have been up to.Pain Clinic !!!!? I hope all is OK!?
Great you have joined the fold back in Nelson , its pretty OK place eh !
All the very best to you,regards Darryl Robertson, Bronte Gallery.

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