Sir Paul's great legacy

October 2012


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The late Sir Paul Callaghan was a world class scientist, great leader, and strong advocate for a more prosperous New Zealand. Education Review looks at the life and times of this great man and how his legacy continues.

Earlier this year, New Zealand lost one of its greatest minds with the death of Sir Paul Callaghan, after a valiant battle with cancer. Sir Paul’s legacy is huge; his contribution was immense. There is so much we can learn from his attitude to life, his drive for success, and his innate leadership.

It seems hard to believe that Sir Paul – winner of the Sir Peter Blake medal for leadership, the New Zealander of the Year award, the Principal Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit, the Rutherford Medal, the Prime Minister’s Science Prize, and countless others – emerged from humble beginnings in Whanganui, with parents who had less than a year of secondary school education between them.

Sir Paul’s accolades stemmed from a passion for science and innovation that began in childhood. He made his first crystal set radio at primary school, and he was excited to pick up two stations. Later, as a student at Wanganui Tech, he would practise blowing up rocks with Molotov cocktails, the 200-metre nearby tunnel providing an excellent echo chamber.

Sir Paul went on to study maths and physics at Victoria University in Wellington. It was here that he won a scholarship to study low temperature physics at Oxford University. He then returned to New Zealand in 1974 to lecture at Massey University’s physics department in Palmerston North, where he worked for 27 years, eventually heading up the department.

While many grumble today about the limited funds available for New Zealand research, in the seventies and eighties, funding was downright scarce. Scientists had to make do with the equipment available.

It was perhaps this need for ingenuity and adaptability that led to Sir Paul’s most significant scientific contribution: using NMR to measure brine content in Antarctic sea ice, helping scientists better understand the global climate structure.

In 2001, he moved to Wellington and was successful in securing funding to establish the MacDiarmid Institute, New Zealand’s premier research organisation concerned with high quality research in Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology. He became its inaugural director.

It was also in Wellington that he set up Magritek, a company to commercialise his NMR technology. Today, the company has expanded its range and sells to international oil companies and pharmaceutical companies.

Minister of Science and Innovation, Steven Joyce, praised Sir Paul for his commercialisation of science.

“He believed science was not only about great ideas but getting value from those ideas. Magritek leads the world in portable MRI technology and wouldn’t exist without Sir Paul’s drive and innovation,” said Joyce after Sir Paul’s death.

“His legacy to New Zealand will be a strengthened commitment to the power of scientific endeavour in leading innovation.”

Sir Paul was a scientist to his very last days. In a break between chemotherapy treatments, he experimented with controversial vitamin C treatment.

About a month before his death, a gravely ill Sir Paul gave a public talk about Zealandia. In spite of his warnings to the audience that he might need to sit or be relieved by ecologist Professor Charles Daugherty, he made it to the end. Two days later, however, he was in hospital.

Sir Paul’s legacy serves as an inspiration to young New Zealanders. The MacDiarmid Institute held a ‘Transit of Venus’ Forum in Gisborne in early June, inviting delegates from the science, business, iwi, and government communities to hear some of New Zealand’s leading thinkers advance Sir Paul Callaghan’s vision for New Zealand: “a place where talent wants to live – a community that is prosperous and inclusive”.

It seems fitting that this rare astronomical event was what led Captain James Cook to discover New Zealand in 1769 and what captivated Sir Paul, a man of discovery and innovation, hundreds of years later.

Transit of Venus was Sir Paul’s last project, one that he had worked on with a sense of urgency as his illness grew. He had so hoped to make it to the Gisborne Forum in June. The MacDiarmid Institute, which initiated and largely funded the development of the Project, collaborated for over 18 months with partners Victoria University and the Royal Society of New Zealand, as well as people of the East Coast, to make it happen.

Although, sadly, he did not live to see the success of the forum, the outcomes of the forum will be Paul’s legacy and memorial. Speakers including Sir Peter Gluckman, Sir Ray Avery and Simon Upton led discussions about how science can aid economic recovery and help us prosper in ways that will repair, and not further damage, our environment.

Sir Paul advocated high tech industries that would not harm the environment and would improve prosperity for all. He wanted Māori people to share that prosperity and start taking a lead in the way we think about our natural heritage. He strongly believed that young New Zealanders ought to be able to make their futures here, just as he did.

It is fitting, therefore, that New Zealand’s new Advanced Technology Institute (ATI), described as a “high-tech headquarters for manufacturing and services firms”, will be named after Sir Paul Callaghan.

“The late Sir Paul Callaghan championed the idea that science could make New Zealand a better place. He believed that science was not only about great ideas but about getting value from those ideas through innovation and commercialisation. Those views exactly reflect the ambition of the Institute, so there can be few more appropriate names,” says Science and Innovation Minister Steven Joyce.

Sir Paul would surely have been pleased to see continued commitment to technology and research. Through the institute and no doubt other initiatives of this ilk, his legacy will live on.

Main source: Sir Paul’s obituary,