Farewell, Sir Paul Callaghan

Farewell, Sir Paul Callaghan
Tributes are flowing in for Professor Sir Paul Callaghan, who passed away at his Wellington home on Saturday, March 24, after a battle with colon cancer.

Tributes are flowing in for Professor Sir Paul Callaghan, who passed away aged 64 at his Wellington home on Saturday, March 24, after a battle with colon cancer.

The late Sir Paul CallaghanA website has also been set up in memory of New Zealand's  most public and most recognised scientist for messages of condolence at

Back in 2010, Callaghan told Idealog the only thing that could ‘save’ science was good science itself.

“I walked into Tait Electronics the other day. They have wonderful machines producing six-layer printed circuit boards, which make fabulous electronics that are exported around the world. I find that sexy. Am I strange? I don’t know. But what turns people on is the fact that smart New Zealanders are making things that are up there with the best in the world..”

He was optimistic about the next generation of Kiwi scientists, but challenged his long-time colleagues to lift their game.

“It’s too easy to say, ‘Keep the funds coming so I can churn out more papers, have more students, and go to more conferences.’ You get to my age and think, ‘What the hell have I been doing all these years? I have published 250 papers and written a bunch of books, but what value have I added to this country?’”

Callaghan's message resonated with Kiwis all up and down the country, and we can only hope others will pick up where he left off.

Science and innovation minister Steven Joyce said: “His legacy to New Zealand will be a strengthened commitment to the power of scientific endeavour in leading innovation.”

Joyce said Callaghan believed science was not only about great ideas, but getting value from those ideas.

"Magritek [the company Callaghan founded] leads the world in portable MRI technology, and wouldn’t exist without Sir Paul’s drive and innovation.”

Acting prime minister Bill English paid tribute to Callaghan's knowledge and willingness to teach others.

"He brought a unique combination of brilliance, integrity and courage to public debate. Sir Paul was a true public intellectual who earned the respect of everyone, including those who disagreed with him.

“A scientist of his calibre comes along very rarely.  Sir Paul Callaghan stands alongside Maurice Wilkins, Alan MacDiarmid, Ernest Rutherford and William Pickering as one of New Zealand’s greatest scientists."

Victoria University vice-chancellor Professor Pat Walsh said Callaghan explained the mysteries of science to a wider audience.
“He demonstrated, to use his own words: ‘not just that science is interesting and a relevant part of our lives but it can actually make a tremendous difference to the potential of this country’.”
In a statement, the MacDiarmid Institute – of which Callaghan was the founding director – called Callaghan the personification of international collaborative science, as well as a great role model for scientific leadership. 

"He revelled in others’ success and sang their praises, not his own.  He was a romantic about science and could articulate the value of basic research better than anyone, comparing today’s universities to the magnificent gothic cathedrals of the medieval period.  Best of all, his vision of leadership was public service, with the emphasis on servanthood, and he saw leadership not as a perk but as a duty—to community, university, and country."

The prime minister's chief science advisor, Sir Peter Gluckman, also paid public tribute to Callaghan's legacy. Click here to see the TVNZ interview.

 A life well lived

Born in Wanganui in 1947, Callaghan later studied at Victoria University before heading to the University of Oxford where he attained both Doctor of Science and Doctor of Philosophy degrees.
He returned to New Zealand to Massey University where he began researching the applications of magnetic resonance to the study of soft matter.
He joined Victoria in 2001 and in 2002 became the inaugural director of the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology.

He was the first scientist outside of Europe to receive the prestigious Ampere Prize in 2004, and in 2010, the Alan MacDiarmid Professor of Physical Sciences won another major international award – the Günther Laukien Prize for Magnetic Resonance. In late 2011 he was made an Honorary Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

He was a fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand and in 2001 became only the 36th New Zealander to be elected as a fellow of the Royal Society of London.

Nationally, his achievements were recognised with the Rutherford Medal in 2005, New Zealand’s highest accolade for science and the Sir Peter Blake Medal for Leadership in 2007. He led Victoria’s Magnetic Resonance Imaging Team that won the Prime Minister’s Science Prize in 2010, and he was named New Zealander of the Year in 2011.

In 2006 he was appointed a Principal Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit and, with the restoration of traditional honours, was knighted in 2009.

His 2009 book Wool to Weta: Transforming New Zealand’s Culture and Economy put forward his vision of a future New Zealand economy based on science, technology and intellectual property.

He has been at the forefront of connecting science and business, founding Magritek Ltd, a Wellington-based company, which sells scientific instruments worldwide for nuclear magnetic resonance.
His numerous contributions and academic achievements—more than 240 articles in scientific journals over the past 35 years—were acknowledged by his alma mater in December 2010 when Victoria awarded him an Honorary Doctorate of Science.

In September last year he gave Victoria’s inaugural Chancellor’s Lecture to 1500 people in the Wellington Town Hall, receiving a standing ovation.

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