Joint ventures in science – Veronika Meduna

By Guest Author 20/12/2013

Photo of Veronika MedunaVeronika Meduna from Radio New Zealand’s Our Changing World writes about New Zealand, Germany and the science that links them.

New Zealand and Germany are about as far apart geographically as it is possible, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing for forging close cultural and diplomatic links. This year marks the 60th anniversary of bilateral relations between the two countries, and that gave me a chance to explore connections in the areas of science and innovation.

The New Zealand government invests more in joint research with Germany than with any other country, but I was still surprised to find that every sixth New Zealand scientist collaborates with somebody at a German research organisation.

My first stop in a tour organised by the German Federal Foreign Office took me to Oldenburg, a city that promotes itself as the Ȕbermorgenstadt (day-after-tomorrow-city) and was the German City of Science in 2009. Te Papa research scientist Heidi Meudt is currently at the University of Oldenburg as a fellow with the Humboldt Foundation, exploring the evolutionary history of my botanical namesake.

Veronicas are a global group of usually small, herbaceous plants with white or blue flowers. In New Zealand, however, they have grown into trees and shrubs, and their looks have led early 20th-century botanists to classify them as a separate group, which most of us know as hebes.

When Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander came to New Zealand, they named three species as Veronica. The name hebe didn’t appear until 1789 when it was given to a South American species. In the 1920s, New Zealand and American botanists, among them Leonard Cockayne, recognised that our plants belonged with the South American species and they transferred all shrubby species into their own group, Hebe. Later, WRB Oliver classified what he called the ‘Veronica-like’ New Zealand plants as Parahebe.

However, Phil Garnock-Jones, a botanist at Victoria University and Te Papa, has published a revision of the classification, placing hebes back within the Veronica genus in recognition of their evolutionary relationship.

He has established a long-standing collaboration with evolutionary botanist Dirk Albach, at the University of Oldenburg in Germany, who has been tracking the evolutionary history and diversification of Northern Hemisphere Veronicas. They recognise that all our woody species have evolved from a herbaceous Veronica ancestor which arrived here about 10 million years ago.

Heidi is investigating how certain evolutionary phenomena can act as drivers of diversity. With the help of next-generation DNA sequencing methods, she is studying radiation (the diversification into many morphologically different species over a short time period) and polyploidy (the duplication of genomes, which is a common phenomenon in plants), and their respective roles in the evolution of diversity.

Next stop: Potsdam, the capital of Brandenburg and the historic residence of Prussian kings and the German emperor until 1918. Today, Potsdam is a major centre of science, with more than 30 research institutes, including the Albert Einstein Institute, also known as the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics, which hosted a conference to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Roy Kerr’s mathematical feat.

Fifty years ago, the Christchurch mathematician revolutionised our understanding of black holes when he discovered a solution to Einstein’s gravitational field equations. His work has been described as the most important single discovery within general relativity in the last 50 years, and observations are now beginning to prove him right.

The Kerr Solution provides an exact description of rotating black holes and clarifies that their size and shape can be characterised by just two numbers: mass and rate of rotation, or spin.

In May, Roy Kerr became the first New Zealander to be awarded the Einstein Medal for his achievements and when I met him and his wife Margaret in Potsdam, they had just completed a two-month European tour of honour.

In this interview, Roy recalls his discovery and the response to its announcement in 1963. Reinhard Genzel, the director of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, discusses current research and evidence that supports the existence of a massive black hole at the centre of our galaxy, and Bernard Schutz, the director of the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics, describes current and future projects that have been designed to detect gravitational waves.

Close by is the Albert Einstein Science Park, with the double-walled Einstein tower and its astrophysical observatory, built to prove Einstein’s theory.  But I was visiting the science park to meet Gerd Helle at the GeoResearch Centre to talk about swamp kauri and its role as an archive of climate information.

Throughout Northland, ancient logs of kauri lie buried in bogs, often for millennia. Swamp kauri is a precious resource for artisan furniture makers, but scientists are also finding that sub-fossil kauri logs are a treasure trove of information about past environmental conditions. These long-lived trees have become time capsules, spanning some of the most interesting chapters in earth’s climate history.

Gerd is part of a collaboration with Waikato University, using swamp kauri to reconstruct past periods of abrupt climate change. One of the first steps in the effort is to determine how old each kauri is, and at Waikato University’s Radiocarbon Dating laboratory, Alan Hogg is using C14 carbon dating and another method called accelerator mass spectroscopy to build up a continuous record of dates. However, if a sample goes too far back in time, radiocarbon dates don’t match up to calendar years because radiocarbon levels in the atmosphere fluctuate. To correlate the information from the trees with past climate events, Jonathan Palmer, a dendrochronologist at the University of New South Wales, is analysing tree rings, while Gerd is measuring isotope ratios of each sample to complete the picture of environmental conditions at the time.

Waikato University has also joined forces with the University of Bremen and its Marum Institute, in a venture called InterCoast. This project is focusing on current trends in the environmental management of coastal regions and was established in 2009 with the first intake of PhD students from both countries.

This initiative builds on the long-standing collaboration between marine geologist Gerold Wefer, from the Marum Institute, and the late Terry Healy, from Waikato University, whose friendship began when they were both post-docs during the 1980s. The multi-disciplinary InterCoast team aims to cover all aspects of coastal and marine science as well as related international law and cultural issues. It deals with all challenges associated with coastal and shelf-sea areas subject to significant global changes. In this interview, Waikato University coastal ecologist Chris Battershill explains some of the projects that are currently underway, particularly following the Rena disaster.

In the south of Germany, I spent time in Stuttgart, the capital of Baden-Württemberg, where I met the people behind the world’s largest airborne observatory.

SOFIA, which stands for the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, flew its first Southern Hemisphere missions from Christchurch in July this year to study space objects that are best observed from his part of the globe. A joint project between NASA and the German Aerospace Center DLR (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt), SOFIA carries a 2.5-metre telescope in a modified Boeing 747 special-performance aircraft. The plane flies at altitudes as high as 13,700 meters to provide access to astronomical signals at far-infrared wavelengths that would otherwise be blocked because water vapour in the atmosphere absorbs in the infrared spectrum.

During the southern flights, the telescope carried a spectrometer called GREAT, or the German Receiver for Astronomy at Terahertz Frequencies (right), which has already been used on missions in the Northern Hemisphere where it has helped astronomers to observe the formation of a star and to detect new molecules in space.

The scientific targets for SOFIA’s southern deployment included objects in the central regions of the Milky Way, which are much more accessible from the Southern Hemisphere, and the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, which are easily visible with the naked eye in the southern sky.

The newest collaborative project between Germany and New Zealand involves the University of Auckland’s faculty of engineering and the Fraunhofer Institute for manufacturing, engineering and automation (Fraunhofer IPA) and is focusing on advanced mechatronics and biomedical engineering.

The Auckland team, led by Peter Xu, has already developed robots that mimic the processes of chewing and swallowing. They are being used to develop and test new food textures and to measure changes during mastication. While a small start-up company is marketing the robot in New Zealand, the Fraunhofer Institute wants to extend its use to dentistry, applying the same machine to test dental implants and to monitor wear in artificial tooth material.

Alexander Verl is a director of the Fraunhofer IPA, which recently won the German future technology award for its flexible ‘elephant-trunk’ robotic arm and its application in the manufacturing industry. The low-cost technology is produced by 3D-printing and could also find a market niche in New Zealand as a fruit-picking robot.

The joint effort builds on the long-standing collaboration and exchange between the two team leaders. Professor Xu has worked in Germany as a Alexander von Humboldt Foundation fellow, and Professor Verl is the first engineer to have received the New Zealand Royal Society’s Julius von Haast Fellowship Award.