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Gifted nuclear physicist left science legacy - 12/05/2004

Bernard O'Brien, a former director of the New Zealand Institute of Nuclear Sciences, has died in Sydney. He was 77. He was a gifted scientist who made a lasting contribution to earth sciences and nuclear physics in New Zealand.

Bernard O'Brien

His work took him to senior posts with the United Nations before returning to New Zealand to lead a government science organisation. After graduating MSc with first-class honours in physics from Victoria University in 1949, he joined the Dominion Physical Laboratory (DPL) in Lower Hutt. He developed a reputation for being able and diligent by solving speed regulation problems on a high-speed centrifuge developed at DPL.

In 1959 he transferred to the Institute of Nuclear Sciences (INS) to work on a new project on dating groundwater using tritium - a naturally occurring isotope of hydrogen. In 1962 he and his family moved to New York where he worked as a senior researcher for a body called UNSCEAR (United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation). He was part of a team that produced a series of radiation tables that enabled medical scientists in many countries to work out the effects of radiation on the human body. His work had applications in the treatment of diseases and ailments including leukemia.

After a two-year spell in New York, he won a New Zealand government scholarship to do a PhD in nuclear physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. For those studying physics at MIT in the 1960s, it was compulsory to study German as well. He impressed contemporaries by gaining an MSc in maths while completing his PhD.

Dr O'Brien returned to New Zealand in 1968 and rejoined INS. One of his projects was studying the effects of radiation from nuclear testing programmes in the Pacific. In 1975 this work led to a job at another UN body, this time in London. For three years he worked at the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) in the Monitoring and Assessment of Radiation Committee (MARC) based at Chelsea College, London.

In 1978 he returned to New Zealand to take up a job as director of the Institute of Nuclear Sciences in Lower Hutt. He held this position until his retirement in 1990. He was a key figure in bringing a particle accelerator to New Zealand from the Australian National University in Canberra. The accelerator enabled the DSIR's Lower Hutt radiocarbon dating laboratory to move into the modern era of radiocarbon dating. When the accelerator was installed, the laboratory became the first in the Southern Hemisphere to do accelerator mass spectrometer dating. This technique enables radiocarbon scientists to date very small samples with more accuracy than was previously possible. The facility, known as the Rafter Radiocarbon Laboratory, continues to be held in high regard internationally for the quality and accuracy of its dating work.

Bringing a 50m-long accelerator to New Zealand was regarded as a bold undertaking in the 1980s. It had to be stripped down to many thousands of parts in Canberra and reassembled in a purpose-built building in Lower Hutt.

Dr O'Brien leaves a number of lasting legacies in earth sciences. One of them is a mathematical model he developed in the 1950s to explain the way elemental carbon cycles in soils. His model is still in use today by scientists studying carbon sequestration in soils - they way atmospheric carbon becomes bound in soil organic compounds.

Shortly after his retirement in 1990, he moved to Australia to be closer to family members. Two years after his retirement, the DSIR was broken into nine government-owned research and consultancy companies. INS became part of Geological and Nuclear Sciences Ltd.

Dr O'Brien received his early education at St Johns College in Hastings, and Hastings Boys High School. Unassuming and softly spoken, he was widely respected for his sharp intellect and the depth and breadth of his science knowledge. He is survived by his wife and seven children.