Endless adventure of discovery: Brian Boyd wins Rutherford Medal
5 November 2020
In the first year New Zealand’s top research honour, the Rutherford Medal, has been open to the humanities, it has been awarded to Distinguished Professor Brian Boyd of the University of Auckland.
Professor Boyd has been in English in the Faculty of Arts since 1979 and for the past 30 years, has been widely acclaimed as the world’s leading Nabokov scholar, the Russian-American writer some consider the greatest of last century.
The Rutherford Medal, awarded by the Royal Society of New Zealand Te Apārangi, this year recognises two main accomplishments: Professor Boyd’s specialised work on Nabokov, and his wider work, introducing evolutionary and cognitive perspectives on literature and art, and linking the arts, humanities, and sciences.
He is thrilled the humanities have now been included within the scope of the Rutherford Medal, “so that all forms of research can come under the bright Rutherford spotlight”.
“As some New Zealande writers have pointed out, my work is better known in London or New York than here, so it’s great now to have this wider recognition in my own country.”
Professor Boyd’s work has had an intense focus; he has published five books, about 200 articles and a website of 1550 pages (so far) on Nabokov, and edited ten books by the author. His Nabokov books have been translated into 11 languages.
However his work has also had a wide sweep, on literature in general, including fiction, poetry, drama, non-fiction, film, and comics, as well as writers from Homer and Shakespeare to Austen, Pushkin, Tolstoy, Machado de Assis, Joyce, Dr Seuss, Art Spiegelman and Orhan Pamuk.
He has also worked on art across times, places, and forms, from the Paleolithic to the present, in sculpture, painting, drawing, installations, photography, videos, architecture, textiles, pottery, and basketmaking.
His work on literature and art from evolutionary and cognitive perspectives has led to invitations from, and collaborations with, artists, biologists, business, classicists, government, mathematicians, microbiologists, museums, neuroscientists, philosophers, physicists, psychiatrists, and psychologists around the world, and to translations into languages from Arabic to Turkish.
More recently, he has been working on a biography of philosopher Karl Popper.
“Historian Michael King has called The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945), written while Popper was at the then Canterbury University College, ‘perhaps the most important book ever to come out of New Zealand’,” he says.
“It helped inspire the fall of the Berlin Wall, the protestors at Tiananmen Square, and philanthropist George Soros, the founder of the Open Society Foundations and bugbear of the American right.”
He says Popper has been credited with the initiating the tradition of a research culture in New Zealand universities, and has inspired Nobel Prize-winning scientists, in every field, around the world.
“One, Peter Medawar, called him ‘incomparably the greatest philosopher of science who has ever lived’.”
As for what’s next, Professor Boyd admits he has “rather a clogged pipeline”.
“After Popper I also have a few more Nabokov books, a third book on Shakespeare, and another on literature and evolution, from Shakespeare to Spiegelman.”
As a humanist, he says, “you can choose to explore what humans have done wrong, and continue to do wrong, and there’s no shortage of examples; but I prefer to show how some humans have extended the possibilities for us all, in art or in thought”.
He offers one quote each from Nabokov and Popper:
“Nabokov, when asked what surprised him in life, answered: ‘The marvel of consciousness—that sudden window swinging open on a sunlit landscape amidst the night of non-being.’ Popper, when asked what he meant by freedom, replied: ‘My idea of freedom is that thought is essentially creative and contributes to the creation of a future in every single person’s life.’
“They are both continually inspiring; they both value the endless adventure of discovery.”
As a humanist, you can choose to explore what humans have done wrong, and continue to do wrong, and there’s no shortage of examples; but I prefer to show how some humans have extended the possibilities for us all, in art or in thought.
Brian Boyd was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and emigrated to New Zealand as a child with his family in 1957. After completing his PhD on Nabokov at the University of Toronto in Canada, he took up a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Auckland, working on Maurice Gee, and was appointed a lecturer in English in 1980.
The Rutherford Medal recognises outstanding research, scholarship or innovation by a person, or team, in any field of engineering, humanities, mathematics, sciences, social science, or technology.
It comes with prize money of NZ$100,000 and Professor Boyd, the first in his family to go to university, intends to donate it to University of Auckland scholarships for first-generation students.
Previous Rutherford Medal winners from the University of Auckland include: Distinguished Professor Dame Jane Harding (Medicine), Professor Michael Corballis (Psychology), Distinguished Professor Ian Reid (Medicine), Distinguished Professor Dame Anne Salmond (Māori Studies and Anthropology) and Distinguished Professor Dame Margaret Brimble (Chemistry).
*Brian worked with Fiona Pardington, pictured in second image, on photographing butterflies Nabokov caught in Europe and America, and selected from her New Zealand photographs for his 2016-17 On the Origin of Art exhibition at the Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania.
Julianne Evans | Media adviser
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