By Duncan Steel 02/10/2019

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The Google Doodle today (at least in New Zealand and Australia) commemorates the birth in 1938 of Bill Robinson, the kiwi scientist who invented the rubber ‘shock absorbers’ that provide some seismic insulation for large buildings, notably under Te Papa in Wellington. 

Sometimes a Google Doodle (the cartoon seen when one opens the Google search page) leaves one befuddled as to what it’s all about, but today’s subject seemed obvious to me. That doodle is shown in the header to this blog post… Clearly it is concerned with the stiff rubber shock absorbers (for want of a better term) used under large buildings in order to minimise the risk of earthquake damage.

If you click on that particular doodle, you will be taken to the following selection of web links, telling you that this doodle celebrates the work of Dr Bill Robinson, the NZ scientist/technologist behind this concept. He was born 81 years ago, on 2nd October 1938; Robinson died in 2011.

If you take a gander at the webpages linked by googling on “Bill Robinson scientist” you will soon find the Wikipedia page dedicated to him, information pertaining to the fact that VUW’s Robinson Research Institute is named for him, the webpage at Robinson Seismic Limited that describes his life and achievements, and other webpages (such as this one and this one) that provide information for those wanting to learn about Robinson’s contributions to making New Zealand buildings safer places to live, work and visit. All these are much recommended reading for those who might want to gain a better appreciation of the work of this great NZ scientist.

For my own part, I lived for a couple of years on lower Cuba Street in Wellington, and so would often walk past Te Papa on my way for a stroll along the sea front. Watching tourists wandering through the main glass doors to that great museum, occasionally I would urge them not to miss going down the staircase just to the right of that grand entrance, the steps taking you down underground where one can see the huge lead/rubber blocks on which that mighty building stands, hopefully protecting it when Wellington next gets a big shake. These were the invention of Bill Robinson and his colleagues.

It happens that Google Doodles are regional: on any day there may be several active doodles, each appearing only in certain countries. Unfortunately Bill Robinson’s 81st birthday doodle is limited to Australia and New Zealand:

Elsewhere there are other doodles being deployed today. In Indonesia one sees that today is Batik Day. In Pakistan they get to see that today is also the 81st birthday of actor and producer Waheed Murad. For most of the rest of the globe, however, it is another scientist who is commemorated: Sir William Ramsay was born 167 years ago:


Next time you see a coloured neon light (which might actually be a hydrogen, helium or mercury light), think of Ramsay and his discovery of the noble gases.

My concluding thought for this post is to mention the Periodic Table shown in the doodle dedicated to Ramsay. The table of the elements has been discussed elsewhere in the Sciblogs (see here and here), and Tom Lehrer famously sang about it; here I simply note that 2019 is the International Year of the Periodic Table.

Addendum, October 10th: Dang, I just knew there was something else about the International Year of the Periodic Table that I should note, but could not recall it until now…

Here is what I should have linked earlier from the website of the Royal Society Te Apārangi: Periodic Table turns 150. There are links there to ways in which various school chemistry classes have become involved, such as designing t-shirts linked to the Periodic Table, and also a splendid series of videos culminating in this one.

Addendum, October 11th: I have just learned that there will be a public lecture at the University of Canterbury on the evening of Thursday October 17th to be given by Associate Professor Sarah Masters, and entitled Essential Elements – Where would we be without the Periodic Table? Go to this UC webpage to learn more, and register to attend. Dr Masters is President of the New Zealand Institute of Chemistry.

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