Inspirational scientist and communicator dies


Sir Paul Callaghan.

Sir Paul Callaghan (1947-2012)

For 27 years Sir Paul Terrence Callaghan was at the forefront of the work that built Massey University's international reputation in fundamental sciences.

Sir Paul, GNZM, FRS, FRSNZ, who epitomised the best qualities of New Zealand's science community and its contribution to international understanding, died yesterday in Wellington, aged 64.

Massey Chancellor Dr Russ Ballard, Vice-Chancellor Steve Maharey and College of Sciences Pro Vice-Chancellor Professor Robert Anderson have paid tribute to the eminent physicist.

Mr Maharey said Sir Paul's death was a tremendous loss to New Zealand and to international science. "He was passionate New Zealander who cared deeply about the betterment of our society and continued to work towards that throughout his life. He showed great courage when he was diagnosed with cancer and sought to increase New Zealanders' understanding of the disease by talking publicly about it."

Professor Anderson said Sir Paul was "blessed with an unbelievable intellect. Moreover, he was gifted communicator. His tenure at Massey University did much to build the international reputation of its fundamental sciences. He was at the forefront of some of the finest and most influential scientific research and teaching in his generation and was an inspiration to all who came in contact with him."

For the past decade, while based at Victoria University at Wellington, he retained a strong association with Massey as Sir Neil Waters Distinguished Professor. The University is a partner in the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, led by Victoria, of which Sir Paul was the founding director in 2002. Massey is a shareholder in the start-up company Magritek, of which Sir Paul was also a founding director. He also had on-going collaborations with the Allan Wilson Centre for Molecular Ecology and Evolution based at Massey.

The University awarded him an honorary Doctorate of Science in 2010, which he described as a wonderful honour. "I really regard myself as part of the Massey family," he said at the time. "The honorary doctorate is rather special as it recognises the connections people make between the university and the wider society." By then he was receiving treatment for colon cancer and frankly acknowledged his prognosis was poor. Staff and students who attended the graduation ceremony at Wellington recall his acceptance address as exceptionally moving and also because his advocacy of innovation as a launching pad for success and challenge to young people to be passionate about life and doing what they loved.

Dr Ballard, who as Chancellor conferred the honorary doctorate, said Sir Paul "was such a fantastic communicator he was almost single-handedly responsible for increasing New Zealanders' understanding of the value of science. He could sell it, he got people excited about it," Dr Ballard said. "He championed science in the public arena and championed business developments based on science."

Sir Paul, raised in Whanganui, joined Massey as a lecturer in 1974, with a degree in physics from Victoria University and a Doctorate in Philosophy (for his work in low temperature physics) from Oxford University.

He began researching the applications of magnetic resonance to the study of soft matter and was made Professor of Physics in 1984. He published the book Principles of Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Microscopy in 1994.

In 2001 he was appointed the Alan MacDiarmid Professor of Physical Sciences at Victoria. 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 in 2006 and, with the restoration of traditional honours, was formally knighted in 2009.

In 2010 he was awarded the Günther Laukien Prize for Magnetic Resonance and shared the New Zealand Prime Minister's Science Prize. Last year he was named New Zealander of the Year and elected an Honorary Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

A regular public speaker on science matters, one of his radio series appeared in book form in 2007, entitled As Far as We Know: Conversations about Science, Life and the Universe. A 2009 book, Wool to Weta: Transforming New Zealand's Culture and Economy, deals with the potential for science and technology entrepreneurialism to diversify New Zealand's economy. He also presented a concurrent documentary called Beyond the Farm and the Themepark.

Following his death, tributes came from many New Zealanders, including scientists and politicians. Victoria University Vice-Chancellor Professor Pat Walsh said the university was deeply saddened by his death. "He was a leading light in the field of nuclear magnetic resonance, and in addition made a significant contribution to communicating science beyond the scientific community and to debate about New Zealand's future prosperity."

At Massey's Defining Excellence awards in Wellington last Wednesday, at which the University celebrated the achievements of some of its most successful alumni along with its top teachers and researchers, Sir Paul was in the minds of many.
Physics Professor Tony Signal, recipient of the award for teaching first-year students, described him as a fantastic mentor and said Massey staff took pride in his many achievements and honours.

“I’ve tried to be a science communicator and try and show not just that science is interesting and relevant part of our lives but it can actually make a tremendous difference to the potential of this country," Sir Paul said in 2010. “Massey is a place where the overlaps between disciplines are encouraged and seen as opportunities for new developments.”
Sir Paul's funeral will be held in the Wesley Church, 75 Taranaki St, Wellington, on Wednesday, March 28 at 1pm. It is  being streamed online from 12.30pm at

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