Documentary celebrates visionary scientist Sir Paul Callaghan

The documentary film Dancing with Atoms celebrates the life and legacy of the late visionary scientist and Massey University and Victoria University professor Sir Paul Callaghan

Sir Paul Callaghan


Six years after his untimely death, a documentary about renowned nuclear physicist Sir Paul Callaghan is set to remind the New Zealand public about his extraordinary achievements.

The documentary film Dancing with Atoms by director Shirley Horrocks has its world premiere in Wellington on Sunday May 20. It was multi-agency funded (led by the MacDiarmid Institute) , with the support of most New Zealand universities, including Massey University, which Sir Paul joined as a lecturer in 1974 before being appointed Professor of Physics 10 years later.

His physics research focused on magnetic resonance – using radio waves to study the molecular make-up of fluids and soft matter.

Sir Paul was appointed the Alan MacDiarmid Professor of Physical Sciences at Victoria University in 2001, the same year he became the 36th New Zealander to be made a fellow of the Royal Society of London.

He was awarded the Royal Society of New Zealand Hector Medal in 1998, the Ampere Prize in 2004, the Rutherford Medal in 2005, was appointed a Principal Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit following year and, with the restoration of traditional honours, was formally knighted in 2009.

He was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Science by Massey in 2010.

Before his death from colon cancer aged 62 in 2012, he retained a strong association with Massey as Sir Neil Waters Distinguished Professor. The University is also a partner in the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnoogy, led by Victoria, and a shareholder in start-up company Magritek, where Sir Paul was a founding director. He also had ongoing collaborations with the Allan Wilson Centre for Molecular Ecology and Evolution based at Massey.

Horrocks who has specialised in documentaries about New Zealand writers and artists such poet Allen Curnow, pioneering multi-media artist Len Lye and photographer Marti Friedlander, turned her attention to science to celebrate Sir Paul’s life.

“I was amazed that this was the first documentary about Sir Paul’s life and work. He gained an international reputation and was a great New Zealander in his work on our country’s future and its natural environment. His talks with [broadcaster] Kim Hill were wonderful examples of how to make science clear and interesting to everyone,” she says.

“Sir Paul loved music and valued dialogue between science and the arts, an aspect which linked up with my arts documentaries. His eventful life and his original work provided rich subject matter. Gathering interviews for the film was a pleasure as so many people who’d known Sir Paul welcomed the chance to record their memories and anecdotes.”

The world premiere of Dancing With Atoms is at 3.30pm, Sunday May 20 at the Embassy Theatre, Wellington. Tickets $25/$15 for children 16 and under and students with ID available from

All proceeds from the film premiere screening go the Cancer Society of NZ. Click here for a documentary preview.


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