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One family; generations of discovery

Thursday 23 July 2020 9:48am

What are the odds? Two Beverly Scholarships in one family, one hundred years apart. That’s a question that statistics honours student Conor Hassan might be able to solve, along with his great-grandfather, distinguished Otago physics and maths alumnus Miles (MAF) Barnett OBE.

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Conor Hassan and his great-grandfather, Miles Barnett, both recipients of the Beverly Scholarship.

Add to that the improbability of Conor discovering Miles’ master’s thesis in a cabinet in Otago’s Physics Department a couple of weeks ago, and the treasure chest of stories in a remarkable family history just keeps on growing.

When Conor came to Otago in 2017 from Christchurch, he says he didn’t know much about his great-grandfather, apart from the fact he had studied physics and maths at the University, and that his family was from Dunedin, having come over from England.

“I knew more about Miles’ dad Louis, my great-great grandfather. The Barnett lecture theatre at the hospital is named after him - he was one of the first surgeons in Dunedin.”

That great-great grandfather is Sir Louis Barnett CMG, one of New Zealand’s most renowned surgeons. In Te Ara the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, it states Sir Louis attended Otago from 1883 to 1884 then attained his MB, CM from the University of Edinburgh. He was the first New Zealander to become a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of England.

Sir Louis returned to Dunedin and went on to become professor of surgery at Otago in 1909. He was instrumental in the establishment of the College of Surgeons of Australasia and a pioneer in hydatid’s research. He was awarded CMG for his services in WWI and knighted in 1927.

The Ralph Barnett chair of surgery at Otago is named in memory of his son who was killed in action in WWI. As well as Ralph and Miles, Sir Louis’ other children were Geoffrey, also a surgeon and lecturer at Otago; Denis who was appointed an Air Chief Marshal with the RAF in the early 1960s and knighted KCB in 1957 and GCB in 1964; and daughter Marjorie, who became deputy director of the nursing division of the Department of Health and was awarded an OBE in 1954.

Louis, Ralph and Geoffrey were all at Gallipoli.

“They’re a pretty interesting family,” says Conor.


Scholarships a century apart

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Miles Barnett’s Beverly Prize certificate 1921.

When Conor received the Beverly Scholarship in statistics and mathematics in 2019, he didn’t realise that Miles had received it too, in 1921 and 1922, until someone in the Physics Department told him.

“I’ve never really cared about awards but perhaps coolest thing about getting the Beverly Scholarship was that Miles got it 98 years ago.”

Conor says Miles “obviously did pretty well” and after Otago went off to the University of Cambridge in the UK to do his PhD.

Conor’s uncle John Harte has been trying to track down Miles’ work, to fill in gaps in the family history, especially concerning the research Miles was doing before and after Cambridge. He has many of his old notes and letters between Miles and research colleagues, and friends and family back and forth from Cambridge to New Zealand.

As part of his research, he asked Conor if he’d like to try to find Miles’ master’s thesis. Conor admits he wasn’t very optimistic about the possibility of it being there.

“I’m like how long ago, 1922? I’m not sure I’m going to have much luck. So I just went to the Physics Department and they asked do you know what year it is, and I said 1920s sometime. Then we went and looked - and there it was. It was probably one of the oldest ones they had in the cabinet, it was a small hardbound book.

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Another great discovery - Conor Hassan with his great-grandfather Miles Barnett’s MSc thesis.

“He had all these hand-drawn diagrams. I’d heard about the work he’d done, and it was pretty cool seeing something physical from so long ago.”

He said his uncle was “super-excited” at the find, which is actually the second-oldest thesis in the department’s thesis cupboard, and all the family has learned something new about their relative.

Miles’ thesis is entitled Analysis of Modulation in a Wireless Telephone Transmitter and analysed the operation of some of the equipment used by Otago’s Professor Robert Jack in his experimental radio broadcasts of 1921 and 1922.

Current Beverly Professor of Physics at Otago, Craig Rodger, says Professor Jack was a pioneer in radio research in New Zealand, undertaking the first "wireless" broadcasts in New Zealand using his equipment.

“The Physics Department was then located in the University Clocktower, putting it right at the heart of this piece of history,” says Professor Rodger. “In some of his first broadcasts he asked listeners to telephone the University if they could hear his transmissions. Professor Jack was initially pleased when calls came in from the hill suburbs of Dunedin city, but later very surprised when telegrams arrived from other parts of the country to confirm they too could receive his signals.

“Miles was working alongside Professor Jack on this world leading research – preparing him for his next step into the world.”


From Cambridge to the Met Office

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Miles Barnett, taken when he was at the University of Cambridge.

Miles graduated MSc with double first-class honours in physics and mathematics in 1924.

At Cambridge he entered Clare College and studied in the Cavendish Laboratory. Te Ara records he was assigned by famous New Zealander Sir Ernest Rutherford to an investigation of the propagation of radio waves under the supervision of English physicist EV Appleton.

Their experiments confirmed the existence of an electrically conducting layer in the upper atmosphere that could reflect radio waves beyond the curve of the earth, and also showed that at times the reflections could come from a second, higher layer. Their initial findings were published in Nature in 1925.

Professor Rodger says fundamentally, it is this reflective layer in the atmosphere which allows radio to travel so far, with the ionosphere and ground acting like "mirrors" the waves bounce between.

Appleton was later knighted for his pioneering work in radiophysics and in 1947 received the Nobel Prize for Physics. John says he mentioned Miles in his Nobel Lecture.

In 1926 Miles was the wireless expert in JM Wordie’s Cambridge Expedition to East Greenland. He was awarded his PhD in 1927 and elected a fellow of the Institute of Physics in 1929. He married the daughter of the mayor of Cambridge, Margaret Dalton (known as Peggy), and they returned to New Zealand, settling in Wellington. They had three children, Sally (Sarah), Jeremy and Jane.

In Wellington, Miles worked as a physicist for the newly-established DSIR, and in 1935 was appointed to the New Zealand Meteorological Office to develop the services needed for aviation. He went on to serve as Director of the Office from 1939 – 1962.

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Miles Barnett during his time at the New Zealand Meteorological Office.

During WWII, the Meteorological Office became a branch of the Royal New Zealand Air Force and Miles became a Wing Commander, and at the height of the war had nearly 500 staff stationed from the equator to the sub-Antarctic islands.

He was made an OBE in 1945 and an Officer of the US Legion of Merit in 1948.

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Royal Society painting of Miles Barnett 1979.

In 1947 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand, and later helped draft the structure for the World Meteorological Organisation. He became the first vice-president of the WMO from 1955-1959 and was a member of the executive committee from 1959-1962. He was also chair of the National Committee for the International Geophysical Year in 1957-58. He died at Waikanae in 1979.

Te Ara says he was “highly regarded for his judgement, tact, quiet guidance and setting of high standards.”

His daughter Jane, now living in Paraparaumu, remembers her father as a “modest and quiet man”.

“He took his time thinking things through at the weather office. At the WMO it was very much the East and West block and you voted for your block. Dad was known for thinking about what was said and would vote on the other side depending on what he thought was right. They couldn’t rely on him to follow the pack.”

She says he was away a lot of the time for meetings to do with his work, including trips to the Antarctic and up to Norway and frequently in between. She has a photo of him at the South Pole.

“I think he was the most-travelled public servant during that time.”

“He was a remarkable father. We had our freedom but were encouraged and helped, and he was a good listener and talker”

She says he was “a remarkable father. We had our freedom but were encouraged and helped, and he was a good listener and talker”.

“My daughter liked asking a lot of questions when she was little, and he would stop her if there was a visitor there but as soon as they had gone he would find out what it was she was after.”

He also had a good sense of humour and “a sense of the ridiculous from his father Louis”.

Cambridge was often a topic of conversation, due to her mother’s background as well as her father’s research. “He had a wonderful time at Cavendish under Rutherford, when he was delegated to work with Appleton. He met JJ Thomson (Nobel Laureate in Physics) and everyone who was anyone [in physics] at the time.”

He was also good with his hands and built Jane her house one section over from his and Peggy’s at Waikanae in the late 1960s. He and her mother Peggy were very good grandparents to their 12 grandchildren, often having “eight or so” at the house at any time.

Conor’s mother Trish Harte spent quite a bit of time with her grandfather and described him as a quiet and thoughtful person. She also recalls large numbers of grandchildren staying at their place, and she greatly admired her grandmother.

“Mum talked about how she thought she was amazing, because she came from a pretty privileged upbringing then just came to New Zealand. Mum saw how her granny picked up life-skills pretty easily, she went from having servants to cooking for a family,” says Conor.

Jane recounts a family story about the first time her mother did the dishes – in cold water with no soap. “When asked, she said the only time she’d ever done the dishes before was in a river on a picnic.”

Pretty decent at maths

Maths talent runs through each generation of the family ¬- Trish is a maths teacher and another of Conor’s uncles, David, was a lecturer in statistics at Victoria University of Wellington, before moving to Statistics Research Associates.

“Everyone’s pretty decent at maths,” says Conor. “People always said to me you’re just going to go and do a maths degree, and I was always like no I’m not. But then I guess it just happened, you can’t control things sometimes.”

His older brothers Papu and James also came to Otago and studied computer science and anthropology.

Last year Conor was awarded the Prime Minister’s Scholarship for Asia and spent a semester studying stats and maths and assorted sciences at the National University of Singapore. Before starting his term, he travelled in China for five weeks, on a volunteer programme teaching English.

“It was just to see China a bit, you always hear so many stories about it. I went over by myself and I don’t know Mandarin and didn’t go to Shanghai or Beijing and people didn’t speak English, so it was a bit touch and go sometimes but it was fun, I enjoyed it.”

His honours research project is on the topical subject of modelling for fake news in elections and he says he definitely wants to go on to do a postgraduate degree afterwards.

“It would be kind of cool going overseas but we’ll have to see how that goes, it’s a bit of a weird time.”

With the discovery of the thesis, Conor and his great-grandfather’s story has also caught the interest of other academics at Otago, including Professor Rodger, a fellow recipient of the Beverly Scholarship.

Like Miles, Professor Rodger works in radio and did his postdoctoral studies at Cambridge. He says while he knew about the work in radio done by Professor Jack, he’s enjoyed learning about MAF Barnett as this piece of his department’s history has come back to light.

"Physics is one of the founding research areas at Otago University,” says Professor Rodger. "But we have not strongly focused on our history – discovering that Prof Bobby Jack worked with a student who went to Appleton in Cambridge and then did great things for New Zealand has been a new thrill for me. And now Connor, well, I suspect he’s brilliant, just like his relative.”

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A newsclipping at the time of Miles Barnett’s retirement.