Six years on from Sir Paul Callaghan's death, a new documentary showing in Auckland this week is paying tribute to the visionary Kiwi scientist. Professor Shaun Hendy talked to science reporter Jamie Morton about his late mentor's achievements and dreams, and what the great physicist and nanotechnology pioneer might have made of a "post-truth" climate that's compelled scientists to march in the streets.

It's now been more than six years since Sir Paul died. Looking back on his life, what do you think his defining contributions to our country were?

Paul challenged New Zealand to think of itself differently.

Many of the ideas that he introduced us to - particularly the notion that we needed to diversify our economy and rely less heavily on exploiting our natural resources - are now widely accepted.


Both major political parties have built policies on ideas that he championed.

But most importantly, he touched many people's lives - scientists and non-scientists alike - and put us on very different trajectories.

I meet people all the time who tell me how a conversation with Paul changed their lives.

You knew Sir Paul well. What are your most cherished memories of him?

I remember when he spoke at the opening of the MacDiarmid Building at Victoria University of Wellington alongside John Key and Steven Joyce.

He was in the middle of a round of chemotherapy and had been at the hospital that morning.

But Alan MacDiarmid, New Zealand's most recent Nobel Prize winner, had been a special person to him so he was never going to miss this opening.

Despite the very obvious effects of chemotherapy, he gave an inspirational speech, putting the two politicians completely in the shade.


It was incredible to me that he would and could do that while fighting cancer.

Science communication is fairly well established in New Zealand, thanks to pioneers in this space like Sir Paul and the current generation of great science communicators, which include the likes of yourself, Associate Professor Siouxsie Wiles, Dr Michelle Dickinson and Associate Professor Nicola Gaston, to name a few. What do you think he'd make of how far we've come in this regard?

I think he would have loved to see the very different ways in which the science community has embraced science communication.

Sir Paul Callaghan, pictured,
Sir Paul Callaghan, pictured, "challenged New Zealand to think of itself differently", says his protege Professor Shaun Hendy. Photo / File

Siouxsie talks about putting science in unexpected places, like making art with her glowing bacteria, and he would have loved that.

Paul had a gift for communication, but he also worked very hard at it.

He would craft his messages and turns of phrase so they were just right.


I think he would be impressed to see how Michelle has taken science communication to the next level with her Nanogirl persona.

He'd also have been proud to see Nicola in action as co-Director of the MacDiarmid Institute - the organisation he founded.

Mostly, he would be very happy to see that all three of them share the same passion for New Zealand science, and the same energy and social conscience that he did.

In terms of the science space in general - since Sir Paul passed we've seen the launch of the National Science Challenges, the appointments of departmental science advisors and a host of new efforts to make our society more science-literate. Still, is there anything about the sector you'd suspect he might be disappointed about?

I think he would see missed opportunities, as I do.

Although some of the National Science Challenges are starting to get on their feet, none of them have really captured the public's imagination.


We've put a lot of money into these ventures, but they've had to spend more time dealing with bureaucracy than engaging the public.

Paul wanted scientists to be held to account by the public, not by Wellington, so I think he would be frustrated.

Further on that: something both yourself and Sir Paul have argued for was diversifying our economy through innovation, and not being so reliant upon a primary-based model. He made the case in his 2009 book Wool to Weta: Transforming New Zealand's Culture and Economy, a couple of years before you both collaborated on Get off the Grass: Kickstarting New Zealand's Innovation Economy. Is there any sign of progress here or are our eggs still in too few baskets?

Sadly, the numbers still aren't great, although I think there has been a change in mindset that may pay off in time.

The Governor General Sir Anand Satayanand knights Sir Paul Callaghan, at the New Zealand Order of Merit Ceremony at Old St Pauls in Wellington in 2009. Photo / File
The Governor General Sir Anand Satayanand knights Sir Paul Callaghan, at the New Zealand Order of Merit Ceremony at Old St Pauls in Wellington in 2009. Photo / File

Ten years ago, before Wool to Weta came out, the dominant thinking was that our only option was to back our strengths in the primary sector.

Today, we regularly see successes like Rocketlab and Xero, that seem to come out of nowhere, just as Paul said.


I think people are more prepared to give things a go now and more of us are looking for careers in technology.

I hope that in another 10 years' time we will have more to show for this optimism.

But we still have yet to significantly lift our investment in science and innovation, and this is holding us back.

"I meet people all the time who tell me how a conversation with Paul changed their lives," says Professor Shaun Hendy, pictured at a launch of a book he co-authored with Callaghan. Photo / File

I don't think we'll ever do this as a country, unless we can get over the dysfunctional debates over taxation, public spending, and budget holes.

If a small country is going to succeed in the tech space, the Government needs to lead the way, and this won't happen until the public allows it.

One thing Sir Paul might have been happy to see is New Zealand attempting his famous moonshot: ridding our environment of pest predators. As one of his proteges, is it pleasing to see us trying to realise that dream?


Paul's very last public appearance was to put the case for Predator Free New Zealand.

It was an incredibly moving occasion but at that stage it was still very much a dream of a few passionate people.

There is a long way to go still, and we need to have some conversations about whether we will or won't use genetic technologies to help us get there, but it is immensely satisfying to see this started.

I'd love to see us take on more ideas like this - projects that bring scientists and the public together in a common goal.

Another comment Sir Paul made in his last years was this: "Science is the compass on the voyage we must all make into the 21st century." Looking ahead into the next few decades, where do you hope science will guide us?

There are some big challenges ahead of us and we seem less prepared than we were just a few years ago.

Callaghan likened 2012's Transit of Venus - which once drew Captain James Cook to the South Pacific - to a
Callaghan likened 2012's Transit of Venus - which once drew Captain James Cook to the South Pacific - to a "symbolic starting point for discussions about the future of New Zealand". Photo / File

I shudder to think what Paul would have made of Trump and Brexit.

Social media is not going away, however, so we are going to have to find ways to deal with the spread of disinformation and hate.

And to do this I think we will need to look to the arts and humanities as much as science.

In fact, I think science was shamefully caught off guard by how things have played out in the past few years.

I watched my colleagues in the UK reacting to Brexit by pointing out how it would be bad for science, which while true, left them on the sidelines of a debate being fought on very different terrain.

I don't think science can afford to remain neutral in these circumstances.


Science can only function properly in a society that is tolerant and just, so scientists need to go to the barricades when this is under threat - Paul would be there right now.

Dancing with Atoms: Sir Paul Callaghan shows this week at Auckland ASB Theatre at 6.15pm on Tuesday, July 24, and at Rialto Cinemas Newmarket at 11.45am on Friday, July 27, and 1.45pm on Saturday, July 28.