Dancing with Atoms: the new documentary honouring the ‘Sir Ed of science’

This weekend marks the release of Dancing With Atoms, veteran filmmaker Shirley Horrocks’ tribute to physicist Sir Paul Callaghan. Don Rowe talks to Horrocks about his life and legacy.

According to Professor Shaun Hendy, director of Auckland research centre Te Pūnaha Matatini, in any other country luminary scientist Sir Paul Callaghan would be on everything from postage stamps to bank notes. A physicist by trade and renaissance man by nature, Sir Callaghan was the recipient of numerous international science awards, a fellow of the Royal Society of London, a teacher, author and communicator.

Founding director of The MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, section sponsors of The Spinoff Science, Sir Callaghan passed away in 2o12 after a four year battle with cancer. But not, however, before he issued a challenge to New Zealand, that a new generation might lead a transformation of the country “through the use of science, technology and an evidence base for decision making.”

Six years on and under a new government, it remains to be seen whether New Zealand will become a “the place talent wants to live”, as Sir Callaghan dreamed. His legacy lives on through initiatives like Callaghan Innovation, Predator Free 2050, and the more than 230 articles he published during his life, all of which is explored in a new documentary by longtime filmmaker Shirley Horrocks.

I spoke with Horrocks ahead of this weekend’s release of Dancing with Atoms: Sir Paul Callaghan, a documentary she describes as a ‘mosaic of memories’ of one of New Zealand’s most eminent academics.

In your words, who was Sir Paul Callaghan?

It’s a hard question to answer in brief. Of course he was one of our most famous scientists but he was so much more than that because his interests ranged so widely and his activities ranged so widely across the environment, politics, economics, the arts and so on, so the documentary is packed with information and interesting facts that you may not expect from a pure science documentary. He was so passionate about a lot of areas.

What was the impetus for starting this documentary?

Like many thousands of New Zealanders, I’d heard Paul Callaghan on Kim Hill’s Saturday morning show, and found him incredibly engaging and able to talk about really difficult areas of science – or anything really – in terms that a layperson could understand. When I interviewed Kim Hill she said ‘I was the one asking him stupid questions’, but of course Kim doesn’t ask stupid questions, and so you can understand what she was saying. It really was a lively conversation between both of them, two very lively minds, and it produced a book also, which was illustrated by my step son.

I met Paul Callaghan when I did a documentary called Venus: A Quest, which revolved around the transit of Venus which was happening in 2012. Sir Paul had a project which also focused around the transit of Venus, but like everything he did, at centre he was a passionate New Zealander, and he was really concerned about the future of New Zealand in terms of the economy, quality of life and the environment, and so he used this wonderful scientific occurrence to have a symposium in Gisbourne – which has a fantastic connection with New Zealand history, because it was Tolaga Bay where Captain Cook first made landfall and had positive connections with Māori.

Captain Cook made that landfall because he had been to Tahiti to view the transit of Venus in 1760, so the transit of Venus was very, very tied up with New Zealand’s history, James Cook and so on. Paul was the sort of person who found connections.

“It was the wonder of science that charged him. He was tremendously excited by it and he wanted to convey that excitement to other people.“ – Kim Hill. Photo: supplied.

That’s drawing from an abstract range of knowledge.

Absolutely. So I found him an absolutely fascinating mind, a fascinating personality, and I was able to interview him for that documentary. It was just before he left to visit Cambridge. He knew he had terminal cancer and that he didn’t have long and so he went to spend three months with his family. A week before he left I interviewed him and he was obviously very ill but gave an interview on camera full of energy. He was diagnosed in 2008, but those years until he died in 2012 were packed with activities. He just never stopped working.

In the Dancing with Atoms trailer Shaun Hendy says that in any other country he’d be on the stamps, and we’ve certainly celebrated scientists like Ernest Rutherford in the past. So why doesn’t he have the same profile?

I suppose Ernest Rutherford made it onto a stamp because he was a Nobel prize winner in 1908, a New Zealand scientist who was a Nobel prize winner. Interestingly, and not surprisingly, Ernest Rutherford was the scientist that Paul admired the most, and Ernest Rutherford had begun the idea of working with teams of scientists. Paul Callaghan did the same thing here in New Zealand, he got together a group of scientists, so it was a team. Nowadays science is very team based, but Paul really started that. Why wasn’t he on a stamp? I think when Shaun Hendy made that comment he went on to say that had he been a rugby player or a top sportsman he would have been. I will always think of Paul as the Sir Edmund Hillary of science.

Tell me about the name ‘Dancing with Atoms’, what does that mean?

Well, a young woman I interviewed had been a physics student of Paul’s, and she became a science communicator like Paul was. She interviewed him once and he told her that when an experiment was happening, he imagined the nuclei of the atoms doing a little dance, and he imagined these atoms dancing. It just occurred to me that dancing with atoms is a very evocative idea. Paul liked dacning, he liked a good time, he had a great personality, he worked with atoms, and so it’s just the right name.

It’s certainly a romantic idea. There isn’t generally a lot of poetry in science.

It’s interesting that you should say that because one of the projects that Paul was involved with was called Are Angels OK? and it was a book that came out of a meeting between scientists and writers and poets and cartoonists and so on. It’s really fascinating and it was published by Victoria University Press. My stepson Dylan Horrocks who was involved in the book said that Paul Callaghan and Bill Manhire had a conversation and Bill said ‘Well Paul, you never know what’s going to happen when artists start to talking to scientists. I mean, are angels OK?’ And Paul said ‘Yeah, sure, angels are OK.’ So that was the name of the book.

It’s a great name.

It is, and it’s a great book. It’s a good read. And just as a little postscript to that, somebody asked Paul Callaghan what he would have liked to have been if he hadn’t been a scientist, and he said a composer. So the arts were very important to Paul. He also told Shaun Hendy that his work with artists and writers for that particular book was one of the most important things he’d done.

What impression did you get from the people that you interviewed? What mark did he leave on these people?

He left an enormous mark on people. The documentary is, in part, what Glenda Louis called a ‘mosaic of memories’ of the people he worked with. I got the impression of somebody passionate about not only his subject, which was physics, he was passionate about everything around him, and particularly the topics of the projects he was involved in. He was a superb teacher, people testified to that, and he went above and beyond for his lectures. Some of the demonstrations of the ideas he was trying to articulate were much to the students delight and occasionally consternation. We’ve reenacted one of the demonstrations which is really hardcase, I can’t wait for people to see it, but I can’t tell you what it is without giving the game away. One of the top scientists at Massey University demonstrated for us.

Paul obviously died quite young and would have continued in his work for a long time, but what legacy did he leave regardless?

It’s a huge legacy of science. He was awarded the Amepere Prize, he was made a fellow of the Royal Society of London, and he had to sign an ancient book that was given to the Royal Society in 1660, and all the famous scientists in the world have signed that book, including people like Sir Isaac Newton, so it’s quite extraordinary. He signed that book the same year as Peter Gluckman who is the prime minster’s science advisor.

But besides his scientific legacy he was also concerned about the economic future of New Zealand. He wrote books on the subject, he spoke to politicians about it, and he had a speaking tour called Beyond the Farm and Theme Park. A lot of what he said was taken on board and informed policy making.

He was also on the board of Zealandia, Wellington’s predator-free environment where native species can thrive. It’s an amazing place. Through his involvement with Zealandia he was able to push into the mainstream an idea which DOC had had for a long time, which was making New Zealand predator-free. It was because Paul got behind that idea and spoke so passionately about it, even a couple of weeks before his death – people weren’t even sure that he would be able to give his lecture, but he did, and he gave it standing up. It came to be known as the Zealandia lecture and he called it the equivalent of New Zealand’s moonshot, which, as Charles Doherty says in the documentary, it was an idea he wanted us to take very seriously. It was because of Paul pushing that idea into the mainstream that the government declared their goal of Predator Free 2050.

It’s quite a legacy for a physicist.

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.


The Spinoff’s science content is made possible thanks to the support of The MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, a national institute devoted to scientific research.

Related:


The Spinoff is made possible by the generous support of the following organisations.
Please help us by supporting them.