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Top Kiwi scientist Sir Paul Callaghan dies

Published: 12:30PM Saturday March 24, 2012

Tributes have been flowing today for distinguished New Zealand scientist Sir Paul Callaghan.

Acting Prime Minister Bill English and Science and Innovation Minister Steven Joyce were deeply saddened by the news that the bastion of science has lost his battle with cancer today.

The 64-year-old, who was named the 2011 New Zealander of the Year, had been suffering from an aggressive form of colon cancer.

Sir Paul passed away in Wellington and his funeral will be in the same city on Wednesday.

English said Sir Paul has been taken from us far too early.

He said Sir Paul was a true public intellectual who earned the respect of everyone, including those who disagreed with him.

A pioneer in his fields, Sir Paul's work put him and New Zealand on the international stage.

His research into magnetic resonance using radio waves and magnetic fields to detect how molecules organise and move, has been widely used internationally in medical MRI imaging.

"His (Sir Paul's) work using magnetic resonance still stands out," the Prime Minister's chief science advisor, Sir Peter Gluckman told ONE News tonight.

Sir Paul fought a very public battle against the aggressive stomach cancer since 2008. He had resorted to an experimental intravenous vitamin C treatment and Chinese medicine to fight his terminal cancer.

Gluckman said Sir Paul showed a great deal of courage in telling the world about his battle with cancer.

"New Zealand has suffered a tremendous loss with the passing of Sir Paul Callaghan," Sir Peter said.

"Paul was a special person - special to all New Zealanders, but particularly so to his colleagues and friends.

The physicist used his profile to push for the clever use of science and creativity to deliver a more prosperous and sustainable New Zealand.

Sir Paul's passion for the country was significant; evident in the work he did to reverse the brain drain, and keep talented new graduates in New Zealand.

Quoted on website, Sir Paul said New Zealand has much to learn from the world.

"We need to discover what works for us, what gives us our global advantage. Find what is best in our society and nurture it. Find what we do badly and correct it. And most importantly of all, grow out of adolescence into adulthood. Avoid the self-serving myths, the phoney shallow game playing, the selective thinking that blights our ability to progress. Face up to our problems, solve them and move on. Then we can truly stand tall."

Sir Paul has also been credited for demystifying science for the public, as he had sought to make it more accessible for all and was a strong advocate of the use of the arts to explain science.

Cold scientific language such as properties and dimensions need to be translated into emotions, colours and senses, he said.

"He'll leave us a legacy that's going to be inordinately valuable to New Zealand - his vision for New Zealand as a place where talent wants to live," said Victoria University Vice Chancellor Professor David Bibby.

Sentiments echoed by colleague and friend  Sir Peter Gluckman.

"He had a passion and integrity that made his contribution to bettering New Zealand science and innovation incomparable."

Gluckman offered his best wishes to Sir Paul's wife Miang and his family.

"Paul has been our most distinguished public scientist and in the world of molecular physics has been a giant."

Sir Paul's work was acknowledged by a raft of scientific awards and civic honours, both nationally and internationally; he was conferred a Principal Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit, later re-designated as knighthood; he was recognised as KiwiBank New Zealander of the year just last year, and awarded the Sir Peter Blake medal.

Sir Paul remained committed to his work throughout his battle with cancer.
"When everyone else would have given up, Paul just kept going on, right to the end," said Bibby.

In his New Zealander of the Year role, Sir Paul vigorously championed the notion of smart industries as a driver for the country, rather than the traditional primary industries such as farming and tourism which are resource-heavy and have a relatively low return.

As president of the Academy Council of the Royal Society of New Zealand from 2000-2003, "Paul did an outstanding job, provided a science direction and had a fantastic way of bringing people together in a very unselfish way," said technology pioneer Neville Jordan.

"Also, in his books, radio broadcasts and TV documentaries, Paul was an outstanding communicator of science so that people could readily understand it."

Jordan said it is unfortunate that Callaghan wasn't able to live long enough to attend the Transit of Venus forum to be held in early June, that he helped organise and was a passionate advocate for.

Born in 1947, the Whanganui raised Callaghan initially studied physics at Victoria University of Wellington. He earned a PhD in low temperature physics at the University of Oxford before returning to New Zealand in 1974 to lecture at Massey University where he also researched the use of magnetic resonance to study soft materials.

He was made Professor of Physics in 1984 and in 2002 was appointed as the founding director of the multi-university MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology.

Callaghan was also a founding director and shareholder of Wellington-based Magritek, which manufactures and markets small scale instruments using nuclear magnetic resonance and nuclear magnetic imaging.

Tributes flow for Sir Paul

Tributes have been flowing today for the distinguished scientist.

Labour Leader David Shearer said Sir Paul was hugely inspirational and a true leader.

"He was passionate about the potential of science and technology to diversify New Zealand's economy, and he was a gentleman - in every sense of the word.

"I consider him a friend and I will miss him greatly."

He offered his sympathy to Sir Paul's family and said he leaves behind a legacy of great ideas for New Zealand.

"Sir Paul had a brilliant mind. He was not only one of New Zealand's leading scientists, he was a pioneer."
The Green Party has also expressed sadness at the passing of Sir Paul.

"Sir Paul's passing leaves a major gap in our public and intellectual life. He will be missed," Green Party Co-leader Dr Russel Norman said.

Victoria University said Sir Paul will be "dearly missed" by his colleagues, who will continue his work.

"Paul was the driving force in developing Victoria as a world-leader in this field," vice-chancellor professor Pat Walsh said.

"His colleagues and students will continue the research that was his passion."

Fans of Sir Paul have turned to social media to express their sadness at the loss.

Judy Hansen commented on the ONE News Facebook page: "Wow knew Paul years ago what a great loss so sad to hear of the loss."

Asher Emanuel tweeted: "Very sad about the passing of Sir Paul Callaghan. One of the few public intellectuals we had. Need more people of that character."

And David Slain tweeted: "If anybody could be said to have "battled" cancer it was Sir Paul Callaghan."