Professor Charles Alcock


This morning we celebrated the outstanding academic achievements of our 2013 students at the Westlake Boys High School Scholars’ Assembly. This fine tradition recognises our students’ results obtained through hard work and determination. For many years the school’s Dux and Proxime Accessit have been announced at the Senior Prizegiving ceremony, but in 2011 the decision was made to postpone the announcement of the school’s two leading scholars until after the external examination results became available.

As we add 2013 Dux Sam Walsh’s name to the long list of academic achievers on the Dux honours board in the Auditorium, we take this opportunity to reflect on other fine young Westlake scholars who put in the hard work and excelled academically during their time at our school. Westlake’s 1968 Dux was an example of steady application to academic studies rarely been seen at Westlake in those days. 46 years on, this young man is Westlake’s very own Rocket Scientist, Director of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Westlaker Professor Charles Alcock.

1986 Charles AlcockCharles R. Alcock, who attended Westlake from 1965-1968, revealed not only his ability but also his application to work from the moment he started in the third form. This aptitude began to reap its rewards from School Certificate onwards – Charles scored 406 out of 500 over a range of five subjects and it was obvious that as the goals became more definite, Charles was able to seek them more resolutely.

A student of quiet disposition, with a good sense of humour and mature opinions, Charles’ ability in school was verified by his performance in the Scholarship examination of 1968. His total marks (788 out of 1000 possible) placed him third in New Zealand and Charles remembers his first moment of scientific “wonder” back in the days. It came in after-school experiments in the Westlake Boys High School laboratory. “We once set something on fire in a back room. It was a beautiful fire, zinc and something else. I can’t imagine ever doing that now, with all the health and safety standards we have.”

After leaving Westlake, Charles obtained his B. Sc. (Honours) degree in Physics at Auckland University. He continued his academic journey at the California Institute of Technology gaining his Ph.D. in Astronomy in 1977 before starting his first appointment as long-term member at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, New Jersey. He became an associate professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1981 before joining the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in 1986 to direct the Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics.

From there on Charles moved to the University of Pennsylvania as Reese W. Flower Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics in the Department of Physics and today he is the Director of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, the world’s largest and most diverse centre for the study of the universe in Cambridge Massachusetts with an annual federal budget of a staggering $111 million.

MJ13_35_001_Charles’ primary research interests are the determination of the composition of cosmic dark matter, innovative surveys of the outer solar system, massive compact halo objects and comets and asteroids. Amongst the many accolades he has received during his career to date was his election to the National Academy of Sciences in 2001, one of the highest honours that can be bestowed upon a scientist. He received the 1996 E.O. Lawrence Award in physics and the 2000 Beatrice M. Tinsley Prize from the American Astronomical Society. Both awards recognised his pioneering work as principal investigator on the major U.S. project to search for massive compact halo objects and estimate their contribution to the dark matter component of the Milky Way’s halo. In 2006 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

The year before last, Auckland University recognised Charles as a Distinguished Alumni for outstanding contributions to his profession, his community and the nation. When asked why he left the University so quickly in the early 1970’s and went overseas to study astronomy, he was happy to reply that he just wanted to see what was out there, an answer that surely defines his astonishing career. You can watch the full “2012 Auckland Live” interview here.

Professor Charles Alcock is one of many successful academic Westlakers to date and no doubt there will be many more of our students to follow in his footsteps. Since Westlake Boys opened its doors 52 years ago, the school has set high academic expectations for all students. Westlake Boys High School and Westlakers are proud to see that our academic achievements are amongst the best in the country and keep improving with scholarship numbers rising from 46 in 2007 to 125 (our biggest number to date) for 2013, making us one of only four schools in New Zealand to achieve over 100 Scholarships, a tremendous all-round accomplishment.

If you hear any news of Westlake Old Boys or former staff or if you are interested in supporting Westlakers events and activities, please contact Mrs Christine O’Dowd at school on 09 410 8667 or by email [email protected]