Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Pioneering nuclear scientist – yet another Kiwi success

Thomas Athol Rafter was born in 1913 in Wellington. After graduating in 1938 at Victoria University College, he started teaching, as there were no jobs as a research scientist available.
In 1940 a position at the Dominion Laboratory became available and he started working on analysing coal ash and uranium bearing minerals from the West Coast beach sands.

Rafter's first radioactive laboratory at the
Institute of Nuclear Sciences in 1948
In 1948, almost a decade later, the New Zealand government decided to establish a group of scientists within the DSIR (Department of Scientific and Industrial Research) to do nuclear research. Rafter’s role in the newly formed group was to further develop the method of radiocarbon dating,

which had been invented three years earlier in the United States by Willard Libby. Rafter’s pioneering work and the resulting publications form a major part of the core literature in radiocarbon dating. In 1959, Rafter became the director of the newly founded Institute of Nuclear Sciences in Gracefield, Lower Hutt. He held this position until he retired in 1978.

Rafter’s legacy was establishing one of the first radiocarbon laboratories in the world in 1951. It still operates today at its original site that is now known as the National Isotope Centre, a part of GNS Science, which makes it the longest continuously operating radiocarbon laboratory in the world. On his 80th birthday in 1993, the laboratory was named ‘Rafter Radiocarbon Laboratory’.

Thomas Athol Rafter passed away in 1996 in Wellington.

Current radiocarbon research applications including 14COas a tracer for fossil fuel emissions, bio product verification, and chronology for Paleoclimatology and aging of shell fish. These topics will be explained in future posts.