Professor Hendy retires

By Shaun Hendy 27/06/2011 2

The Allan Wilson Centre ca 2002. Penny and Hendy are second and third from the left in the back row.
The Allan Wilson Centre ca 2002. Penny and Hendy are second and third from the left in the back row.

No, it’s not me … it’s my Dad, Mike Hendy, who retires this week from his Chair in Mathematical Biology at Massey University in Palmerston North.

Not surprisingly, people often ask me whether I am related to Mike Hendy.  Hendy is an unusual last name, which we get from our Cornish ancestors, and Mike is probably the best known New Zealand Hendy, especially in academic circles.

On the Googling of Hendys

If I google ’Hendy’ at with the flattering personalised search features off, I find that Dad shows up in third place, after the town of Hendy in Wales and some chap called Peter Hendy, the commissioner for transport in London.

So what has my Dad done that gets him third place in Google’s hall of Hendys?

Well, the family story goes that my Mum and Dad went to a debate between evolutionary biologist David Penny Professor Robert Brooks of Massey University** and a creationist*** in Palmerston North.  My Mum has never been entirely convinced of the value of mathematics, but on this occasion Dad says that she poked him in the ribs and said that surely if Darwin’s theory of evolution had truly occurred then he ought to be able to prove it mathematically.

(While I would like to be able to claim to remember this first hand, at this stage of my life I was too occupied with blowing things up with double happys down on the banks of the Manawatu to pay much attention to such things.  Luckily for all concerned, I developed an interest in science a few years later after my Dad gave me a copy of John Gribbin’s book on quantum mechanics.)

Putting Darwin to the test

Now strictly speaking you can’t prove things in science, you can only disprove them.  But if a theory survives many attempts to disprove it, while its rivals don’t, then scientists will come to regard it as very likely being true.

The problem with evolution lies in putting it to the test.  In the late 1970s, the philosopher Karl Popper had caused a stir by suggesting that natural selection might not be falsifiable — he argued that it was based on a kind of tautology: only the fit survive, but the only way to tell fit from not is by watching what survives*.

In fact, it was Popper’s scepticism that inspired my Dad and David Penny to put evolution through a particularly stringent mathematical test a few years later, showing not only that it was falsifiable but that it stood up to a particularly rigorous attempt to disprove it.

They used new techniques that were emerging in the 1980s for constructing evolutionary trees using molecular genetics.  By seeing how specific chunks of DNA differed between species, scientists were beginning to infer genetic relationships between species that resembled family trees.

How does this let you test evolution? If the ancestors of gorillas diverged first from the ancestors of humans and chimpanzees, then evolution suggests that the match between the DNA of humans and chimpanzees should be closer than either has with the gorilla. Although we don’t know a priori whether gorillas did diverge first from humans and chimpanzees, the theory of evolution predicts that the DNA will tell the same story no matter which piece we look at.  If we don’t get the same answer from different pieces of DNA, then we have falsified evolution.

Back in the 80s, it was still difficult to sequence DNA, so David and Mike used proteins, which are coded for by DNA.  They used five different proteins from eleven different species, finding that the trees constructed from each protein did indeed paint a common evolutionary picture of the relationships between the species.

They had found a way in which evolution could in principle be falsified, but then had found that it stood up to their test.

Putting Massey on the Map

David and Mike published this work in Nature in 1982.  It is one of the scientific articles that put Massey University on the map, and today remains the eleventh most cited scientific article written by anyone at Massey.

They went on to develop better methods for constructing trees based on genetic data.  The Penny-Hendy collaboration has Massey’s second and fourth most cited scientific articles, while overall the two of them account for more than 2% of Massey’s articles and attract 6% of Massey’s citations.

So I guess you might say that Massey is a Dad and Dave kind of university.

In total, Dad worked at Massey for 38 years. He did many other things, including training a band of very successful graduate students who have gone on to have a big impact on the New Zealand science scene and founding the Allan Wilson Centre, which is one of New Zealand’s Centres of Research Excellence.

Of course, no true mathematician ever retires, and in that spirit Dad is going to carry on his research for a few more years at the University of Otago.  He takes up a research Chair there on Friday July 1.

Have fun Dad!

*Popper later backed away from this position as the debate unfolded.

** Correction from Dad 😉

*** Dad also adds “opposing Robert Brook was the creationist debater was Duane Gish, who is referred to in your link to Popper. Robert was such an unusual debater that he floored Gish on a number of points!”

2 Responses to “Professor Hendy retires”

  • I’m sure Mike will be missed from Massey. He certainly had a major impact on my career (He & David supervised my PhD). He’s just down the road from Canterbury so I hope to visit him and others periodically at Otago.

  • Great blog Shaun. It’s nice to see a summary of your father’s work – a fascinating and important area of research. He has certainly done Massey and NZ credit.

    Funny you should mention Robert Brooks, I remember his lectures vividly – he told the most unPC jokes. I can well imagine him taking a creationist down a peg or two.

    I remember going to hear a creationist lecture when I was at Massey – can’t remember who it was but it was the most hideous talk I have ever been to. he refused to take any questions (feigning he had to be elsewhere) and ended his talk by saying that scientists who wanted to prove evolution where just doing so, so they could be homosexual????? Strange little man.