Ahead of the premiere of a new documentary on the life and work of Sir Paul Callaghan, a few of his friends and colleagues – including Anne Salmond, Bill Manhire, Nicola Gaston and Shaun Hendy – share their memories of the great man.
New Zealander of the Year, founding director of the MacDiarmid Institute, coiner of the rallying cry to “make New Zealand a place where talent wants to live” – Sir Paul Callaghan was a lot more than just a high-profile scientist. A tireless proponent for New Zealand’s potential to be a world leader in the smart application of scientific research, Callaghan pioneered the once-revolutionary idea that the country’s science and business should forge closer connections, to the benefit of both.
The prolific science communicator and cheerleader died in 2012 but his influence is still felt today in projects like Callaghan Innovation, the government body tasked with making New Zealand business more innovative (and which, like the MacDiarmid Institute, is a sponsor of The Spinoff). His life and legacy is explored in Dancing with Atoms, a new documentary by veteran filmmaker Shirley Horrocks, which has its premiere on May 20 in Wellington.
To mark the occasion, a few of those who worked with Callaghan in the later stages of his career share their memories of an extraordinary man.
As told to Alan Perrott.
Dame Anne Salmond
For a long time all I really knew about Paul was that he was involved in nanotechnology and talking about the country at large. That’s when I first got to know about him, when he was doing analyses of what kind of economic activities could yield real results for New Zealand rather than just keeping the GDP wheels rolling.
I thought it was great because he was bringing his scientific mind, but also the philosophy you get from some areas of physics where it’s not just about measuring stuff, it’s about exploring the limits of our understanding as humans.
I was talking most to Paul during the Transit of Venus commemoration (in 2012) which came about near the end of his life. He had this idea of using the commemoration of the transit to kick off a wide-ranging discussion about the future of New Zealand and he wanted to wrap all these different strands together in an event on the East Coast.
I was invited to some meetings in Wellington because this was an area I was involved in, and I’m from the coast, from Gisborne.
I don’t think Paul had much to do with te reo Māori up until that time, but he found himself working with a 50-50 Māori and Pākehā community and I think that was a bit of a surprise. He was dealing with people like (Te Ahika Te Aitanga a Hauiti chairman) Victor Walker and (Tolaga Bay Area School principal) Nori Parata, all these extraordinary people, and talking about what he was hoping to pull off. But then quickly realising they already had their own very strong views about what a discussion of that period of our history might look like, and that those views were not only powerful, they were based on a different kind of philosophy than he was used to. That fascinated him. It was new terrain with different assumptions about how the world works, what matters, and what a good country would look like.
He was an intellectually adventurous guy and he enjoyed that it was new to him. He was a risk taker, but in a way that was finely calculated. He wanted a lot of information before he made a decision which is admirable because sometimes, in these contexts, if you don’t know enough you can be adamant in ways that are slightly dangerous.
So yes, I liked him and I miss him. I miss Paul because he wasn’t afraid and there are a lot of people who just don’t want to stick their head above the parapet, and because of the kind of scientist-businessman-Kiwi that he was. He cared enormously about the country and its people – if he thought things were going awry he wasn’t afraid to say so, and that’s quite uncommon.
Dame Anne Salmond is a historian, author, Professor of Māori and Pacific Island Studies at the University of Auckland and the 2013 New Zealander of the Year.
in early 2000s, Paul moved to Wellington where he pitched the MacDiarmid Institute. I think that was the start of him thinking big picture about how we could change the science system. He wanted the institute to be something different, something collaborative that would bring together a large number of colleagues working on common problems.
He wanted it to have an impact, but he also realised he was putting his hand out for a large sum of New Zealand taxpayers’ money, so what was he going to do in return? He began talking about, ‘how many hip replacements is this project worth? Am I taking away from the taxpayer?’ He was articulating a new social contract: if we wanted more, we had to deliver more.
[At the time] a lot of scientists weren’t interested in industry, while very few industries were interested in science. There was a chicken and egg problem. Then Paul kicked off this very different vision. He’d talk to business, get them interested and knocking on his door and then he’d persuade his colleagues to be interested in business while also persuading the government that they had a bridging role, one they had pulled back from since the science reforms of early 90s. One of the important things to come out of that conversation was Callaghan Innovation.
But if we could have cloned Paul and sent him back in a time machine, you know, I don’t know if it would have sped things up. He was a product of his time, and a lot of different things had to come together, we needed the internet, the extra connectivity. So I think his message arrived at just the right time, and it wasn’t coming solely from Paul, but he was the person best able to articulate the vision of being able to succeed from New Zealand.
Then, as he became ill, I think he began passing over that leadership to a new generation.
I try, but I’m not Paul, I make a very different bargain with myself than he did in terms of the time and energy I put into the role. It’s a difficult legacy to live up to, he’s daunting to follow, but I can see it’s being continued and shared by many different people.
They are big ideas, very simply expressed. They don’t fly over your head, anyone can grasp them and that’s remarkable.
Professor Shaun Hendy is the director of Te Punaha Matatini, a Centre of Research Excellence at the University of Auckland, where he is a lecturer in physics. He co-wrote with Sir Paul Callaghan the books Wool to Weta (2009) and Get Off The Grass: Kickstarting New Zealand’s Innovation Economy (2013).
I think he was a bit special in [the way he was] able to bridge a lot of things while not advocating for one particular model or way of doing things at the cost of anything else. He was a joined-up thinker and perhaps that’s why he had such impact.
When he started talking about predator-free New Zealand, that was part of that joined-up thinking. Yes, you could zero in on any of the things that he took on as a cause, but that would be to neglect the background thinking that he did.
Predator Fee New Zealand [of which Callaghan was an early supporter] came from thinking beyond the farm, to the wider economy, where we are in the world, how we interact with the rest of the world via trade and tourism, and how we should be sensible about that and allow science to play a role.
Then, beyond that again there was the ‘talent lives here’ meme which still exists, we print it on the t-shirt we give to students at the institute, which slightly embarrasses them.
But that’s all joined up with his thinking that we can’t just keep selling milk to drive the economy, we need to be thinking about how to keep smart people here and give them the tools to succeed.
The culture he created influenced politicians and people in science policy to where every PhD student in any science department will be told that an academic career is only one option. Creating a startup is where the future is, and there are now many examples of graduates who have gone on and done things.
He was quite forceful as a person, he was pretty convinced of his own worth, and was always aware of his audience and his need to put what he wanted to say in the right context for that audience. That made him persuasive in a way that many other weren’t able to be.
Dr Nicola Gaston is an Associate Professor in the University of Auckland’s Physics Department and Co-Director of the MacDiarmid Institute
Paul always seemed pretty confident, and I think he liked trying to persuade people. He liked the challenge and I think he became more and more of an orator, even over those few years that I knew him. He was incredibly articulate – if you listened to some of his radio work, he could take just about any topic and make it available to anyone listening without being somehow reductive and oversimplifying. By the end of it, you’d even think you understood it, then ten minutes later you’d realise you probably didn’t.
That ability really helped him connect all sorts of chunks of New Zealand society with all sorts of intellectual territory.
Then, when he did become ill, he remained very courageous and optimistic about everything, and just kept on going. He was, I think, pretty extraordinary. I’m a total slacker really, and Paul never was. He wouldn’t even know how to spell the word.
Paul was a kind of zone in which energy exists, and he fed that energy to the people lucky enough to be around him.
Professor Bill Manhire is a poet, short story writer, and the director of the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University of Wellington. New Zealand’s first Poet Laureate , Manhire is the author, with Sir Paul Callaghan, of Are Angels OK? (2006).
The world premiere of Dancing With Atoms: Sir Paul Callaghan is at the Embassy Theatre, Wellington on May 20. Tickets are available through eventbrite.co.nz, with all proceeds going to the Cancer Society of New Zealand.