It's a huge leap from blowing up rocks and building crystal sets as a child to receiving a knighthood and being named New Zealander of the Year but for the late Paul Callaghan it was a journey that was always going to happen.

The youngest son of Ernest and Mavis Callaghan was born in 1947 and after his primary schooling went to the Wanganui Technical College (now City College).

Sir Paul dabbled in scientific experiments but it was that interest which led to his studying maths and physics at Victoria University.

He was an excellent student, winning a scholarship to study low temperature physics at Oxford University.

Advertisement

He returned to New Zealand in 1974 to lecture in the physics department at Massey University in Palmerston North, where he worked for 27 years, eventually heading up the department.

The chemistry department had just bought a nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectrometer and Sir Paul began research using the spectrometer.

He used NMR to measure brine content in Antarctic sea ice, helping scientists better understand the global climate structure.

The sea ice was beyond the capabilities of existing measuring tools, so he designed and built hardware for the purpose.

In 2001, he headed a campaign to launch a centre of research excellence at Victoria University.

The funding they won set up the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology with Sir Paul as its inaugural director.

He was a founding director of Magritek, a Wellington-based technology company that sells nuclear magnetic resonance and MRI instruments.

He was a regular public speaker on science matters and, in 2007, one of his radio series appeared in book form.

Two years later he penned Wool to Weta: Transforming New Zealand's Culture and Economy, which dealt with the potential for science and technology entrepreneurialism to diversify the country's economy.

In 2001 Sir Paul became the 36th New Zealander to be made a Fellow of the Royal Society of London.

He was awarded the Ampere Prize in 2004 and the RSNZ's Rutherford Medal in 2005.

He was appointed a Principal Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2006 and in 2007 was recognised with a World Class New Zealander Award and the Sir Peter Blake Medal.

He was knighted in August 2009.

The accolades kept coming and in 2011 he was named Kiwibank's New Zealander of the Year and later that year was elected an Honorary Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

Sir Paul died in March 2012, aged 64, after a long battle with colon cancer.

Even after his death, recognitions continued.

He received a posthumous World Class New Zealand award, becoming the supreme winner in May 2012.

The Crown entity, Callaghan Innovation, formed in February 2013, was named after him.