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Scientific peaks

Image of the January 2018 Wilderness Magazine Cover Read more from the
January 2018 Issue

Three mountains named after New Zealand scientists. 

More often than not, it’s explorers or politicians that get features named after them, while the achievements of most scientists rarely make the limelight.

But New Zealand is an anomaly – it has more natural features named after scientists than any other comparable area on Earth.

Some of the earliest features named after scientists are Banks Peninsula (named after Captain James Cook’s naturalist, Joseph Banks) and Solander Island, named after Daniel Solander – who was also a naturalist on the Endeavour’s seminal 1769 visit to Aotearoa.

Other famous scientific names include Mt Owen (named for palaeontologist Richard Owen), Mt Darwin (after theory of evolution co-founder Charles Darwin) and Mt Hooker (named after botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker).

Undoubtedly, it’s the West Coast’s Paparoa Range that sports the greatest density of ‘science peaks’. Geologist Julius Haast named Mt Faraday during the 1860s, but many of the rest are thanks to scientist Simon Nathan, who proposed them in the 1970s. They include: Nicolaus Copernicus (Polish astronomer), Marie Curie (Polish physicist), Humphry Davy (English chemist), Albert Einstein (German physicist), Euclid (Greek mathematician), Michael Faraday (English physicist), Alexander Fleming (Scottish physician), Galileo Galilei (Italian astronomer), William Kelvin (Scottish physicist), Oliver Lodge (British physicist) Louis Pasteur (French biologist), Joseph Priestley (British chemist), Antoine Lavoisier (French chemist), Gregor Mendel (Czech geneticist) and Ernest Rutherford (New Zealand nuclear physicist).

Such a dazzling array of scientific luminaries is all very well, but apart from Rutherford, none of them are New Zealanders. My interest piqued, I looked for other places where New Zealand scientists feature.

1- Mt Hector, Tararua Forest Park

Scottish-born scientist James Hector was a giant of 19th century New Zealand science. As well as making significant contributions to botany, geology and exploration, Hector played a critical role establishing the New Zealand Geological Survey, the Colonial Museum and the Meteorology Department. As a landmark clearly visible from the site where Hector worked, it’s a reasonable assumption that Mt Hector (1529m) is named after him. However, according to Tararua expert John Rhodes, there is no proof of that. Another Mt Hector, in the Canadian Rockies, is named after him. New Zealand also has Hector Col in Mt Aspiring National Park, and the ground-hugging alpine plant Hectorella.

2- Haast Hut, Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park

German-born geologist and explorer Julius von Haast was a colossus in New Zealand’s 19th century scientific scene, and three features of Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park bear his name. Haast Ridge rises from the Tasman Glacier towards the Grand Plateau and provided the main route before the advent of aircraft access. Glacier recession and rock-fall danger have meant the Haast Ridge route and its namesake hut are rarely used these days. Mt Haast (3114m) is one of several peaks prominent from the Grand Plateau. Although somewhat dwarfed by nearby Mt Tasman, it’s significant for being one of our 30 peaks over 3000m.

3- Mt Tinsley, Fiordland National Park

While the Kepler Mountains are named after the German astronomer Johannes Kepler, two nearby mountains were named after prominent New Zealand scientists as recently as 2010. Mt Tinsley, named after cosmologist Beatrice Tinsley, is a prominent 1537m peak that rises above the Iris Burn, and is clearly visible from the tops on the Kepler Track near Hanging Shelter. Mt Pickering, named after NASA scientist Bill Pickering, is more distant; it’s a 1650m peak near the head of the Iris Burn.

Perhaps we’re finally getting with the times, naming some peaks after scientists who lived into the 21st century and one after a New Zealand woman scientist.