New Year Honours: Paul Callaghan bringing science to world stage

By Julie Middleton

Paul Callaghan sees his award, the top gong bestowed in the New Year Honours list, as a victory for New Zealand science.

"I'm absolutely thrilled because it's rare for science and technology that this happens," says the Wellington nuclear physicist, director of the Government-funded MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology.

"Maybe it signals an increasing sense that New Zealand and the Government values those sorts of contributions."

Professor Callaghan, 58, Wanganui-born, has been made a principal companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit (PCNZM).

The distinction is second only to the Order of New Zealand (ONZ) and is the first PCNZM appointment since the 2002 Queen's Birthday honours. Professor Callaghan received the news with "shock and pleasure" and has no idea who nominated him.

While he claims the award as a nod to science in general, on a personal level, "It's very nice to be acknowledged as being of some use to your country - it's as simple as that. It's really very gratifying".

As well as heading the Victoria University-based MacDiarmid Institute - named after Kiwi Alan MacDiarmid, winner of the 2000 Nobel chemistry prize - Professor Callaghan is also co-founder of Magritek, a high-tech start-up company.

He is a superstar of magnetic resonance - a means of tracking molecules through radio waves. Its best-known application is in human organ scans, but the technology is also used in, for example, the oil industry to see how much oil is in a well and how easy it will be to raise, in the food industry to measure the spreadability of butter or the characteristics of chocolate, and in analytical chemistry to find out what materials are made of.

Professor Callaghan's magnetic resonance methods are used worldwide in the production of plastics, liquid crystals and detergents and has helped Kiwi dairy company Fonterra develop the best mozzarella cheese for pizzas.

Nanotechnology, the other area Professor Callaghan works in, is "convergence science" that seeks, among other things, to unite human cells and electronics by drawing together chemistry, biology, physics and engineering. Possible future uses include technology that interfaces with the body - bionic eyes, perhaps, or particles that can target specific cells to release drugs directly to them, an idea which would have implications for chemotherapy treatment.

Professor Callaghan's work focuses on finding out how fast a microscopic drug capsule releases its load by sending radiowave messages into its nucleus, which return information on molecule movement.

Professor Callaghan took his first degree, in physics, at Victoria University of Wellington. That was followed by a DPhil degree at Oxford University, England. He has received some of science's highest honours.

He says he has never felt, as have some colleagues, that science and technology have been neglected in New Zealand, and he has turned down offers to work overseas. However, he picks two trends that have boosted science's profile in recent years. The first is technology that has connected us more easily to the world, cheaper airfares and the internet among them.

"The other big thing is [that] people believe they can do things on the world stage being New Zealanders [like] Peter Blake, Peter Jackson, and Michael Campbell," he says. "It's broken the idea we're some little place down here and we look to the rest of the world for great things but we ourselves don't play on that stage.

"That's wrong."

That said, he had sounded a warning that people had become so obsessed with shielding children from risk that many never developed the desire to find out how things work.

* Paul Callaghan shares his gong with five other people: food magnate Sir Patrick Goodman (2002); former judge The Rt Hon Sir Ivor Richardson (2002); Governor-General Dame Silvia Cartwright (2001); theologian Emeritus Professor Lloyd Geering (2000); and The Rt Rev Te Whakahuihui Vercoe (2000).
* The order can be held by 30 living people at any one time but does not have to be awarded every year, says David Baguley, director of the Honours Secretariat. "We have not had any appointments to that particular level for a number of years. It has been awarded very sparingly for extraordinary people. It's the level of honour given to governors-general, and the Governor-General is the chancellor for the order."
* Under the honours system that prevailed until 2000, the equivalent award was knights and dames grand companion (GNZM). The investiture ceremony for those named in the New Year honours is scheduled to take place in March at Auckland's Government House.

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