A Science Voice from New Zealand

Sir Paul Callaghan

by Bill Morris

This week we mourn the loss of Sir Paul Callaghan. With his passing we lose a formidable, visionary mind who chose to devote his talents to his home country rather than heading off for greener pastures overseas. He was that rare combination; a brilliant scientist and a compelling science communicator. And with his vision of a “100% Smart” New Zealand society, he had the ability to unify New Zealand in a prosperous yet environmentally-friendly future.

At ScienceTeller in 2011, SCITED speaker Peter Biggs spoke of Sir Paul and other creative New Zealanders as being the vanguard of a new “New Zealand story” – a story in which our artists, scientists and thinkers are celebrated as much as our sports heroes; a story in which our innovativeness, artistry and intellectual prowess are celebrated alongside our more traditional national characteristics such as rugged strength and stoicism in the face of adversity.

This new national identity is crucial if we are to become a leading nation in the 21st century and this is why Sir Paul’s death leaves such an enormous void.

Speaking at a public lecture at Otago University on 2011, Sir Paul described Dunedin as the “perfect model” for developing the knowledge-based society he envisioned. Under this new paradigm, New Zealand would produce high quality exports for niche markets that did not make unsustainable demands on the environment. It would be an equitable and just society – a place where highly-skilled people would want to live. In respect to this, he slammed current and previous governments’ “short-term thinking” in regards to their reluctance to fund research and development.

With its world-class university, international businesses like NHNZ and the high quality of its surrounding natural environment, Sir Paul saw Dunedin as the perfect model for the future of this country. He saw the city as a place of “robust environmentalism”, rather than “phoney clean and green” rhetoric and marketing.

A perusal of  the Dunedin City Council’s long-term draft plan, which arrived in letterboxes in the last few days, reveals a city scrabbling to recover from heavy debt. For what its worth, the draft plan provides the public with an opportunity to make submissions on the future of the city. It’s an opportunity to consider whether Dunedin is choosing to measure up to Sir Paul’s vision, or not.

With Sir Paul’s passing at this deeply divisive juncture of New Zealand society, we’ve lost a great leader in a time of great need. It’s up to those of us left in his wake to strive towards seeing his work achieved. If you didn’t know much about Sir Paul or his vision for New Zealand, I urge you to honour the memory of a great New Zealander by taking 20 minutes of your day to watch this video of one of his speeches from last year.

Rest in peace, Sir Paul.

Sir Paul Callaghan opened the Centre for Science Communication in 2008. Lloyd Davis, Director of the Centre writes;

“Sir Paul Callaghan was a great advocate for science and for communicating science to the public. In both he excelled personally and it was fitting that he should  have given the inaugural Distinguished Communicator Lecture to open New Zealand’s first Centre for Science Communication in February 2008. In some way, we are one tiny part of his legacy. The Centre extends its sympathies to Sir Paul’s family.”


Comments (1)

One thought on “Sir Paul Callaghan

  1. A fitting tribute to an amazing communicator. Thank you Bill. Sir Paul will be sorely missed, at a time when the new Ministry of Everything including Science and Research, doesn’t even have those words in its title…

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