Physicist Sir Paul Callaghan is a remarkable figure in the world of science. He has put himself and New Zealand on the world stage and has brought science to the people. Sir Paul was born in Wanganui in 1947 and is Alan MacDiarmid Professor of Physical Sciences at Victoria University of Wellington. He was diagnosed in 2008 with an aggressive cancer. Sir Paul replied to 12 Questions on his iPhone from his hospital bed this week.

What is the thing that science cannot answer or solve?

Science cannot tell us how to live as humans. It cannot solve human ethical issues.

If you were not a scientist, what would you be doing?


I would have liked to compose music.

When are you happiest?

When I am teaching physics to advanced undergraduates, opening their eyes to the astonishing insights of physics. Although the most moving experience has been in the moments of discovery, when I have managed to see something new in nature for the first time.

Who or what is the greatest love of your life?

My wife, of course. Science has been a good runner-up when she is absent!

What is the trait you least like in yourself?

My tendency to speak too soon on a matter, before I have thought it through properly. Although, as I have grown older I have tended to hold back more.

What book changed your life?


There isn't one in particular that I would single out. At various times in my life certain books have resonated. In my early days as a physicist, the Feynman Lectures on Physics was influential.

In my professional work Abragam's Principles of Nuclear Magnetism has given me deep insights. My Antarctic love was spurred by Apsley Cherry-Garrard's Worst Journey in the World.

Recently my interest in economics has been given more insight by Tim Harford's books. There is no one novel that stands out for me.

I have had to gain my personal knowledge from hard-won personal experience, amplified by moments of insight as I read.

But Shakespeare has influenced my love of language.

What makes you unhappy?

Observing venal and selfish human behaviour. But of late I have the more immediate focus of my illness.

I am sad that I can't spend more years with my wife and family, and that I shan't see my grandchildren grow up.

What is your favourite word?


What is your greatest indulgence?

Being able to sit comfortably immersed in my thoughts.

If you could bring something extinct back to life what would it be?

The moa.

Which living person do you most despise and why?

Tyrants and despots generally. I don't single out any one in particular. Those who would treat women as the chattels of men are particularly disagreeable.

Religious theocracy seems to specialise in nastiness.

If you could have your time over again you'd ... ?

Have acted when I was young with the wisdom I have now.