Professor Sir Paul Callaghan (1947–2012), physicist and founding director of the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, passed away on 24 March 2012.

Nuclear magnetic resonance research

Sir Paul grew up in Whanganui, gained a degree in physics at Victoria University of Wellington and went on to earn a DPhil degree at the University of Oxford, where he researched low-temperature physics. On his return to New Zealand in 1974, he lectured at Massey University, where he began research using the nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectrometer bought by the chemistry department. He investigated the applications of magnetic resonance to the study of soft matter and published Principles of Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Microscopy in 1994.

In 2001, he moved to Wellington where he was appointed Alan MacDiarmid Professor of Physical Sciences at Victoria University. He helped establish the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology. Present director Professor Kathryn McGrath says Sir Paul “got his energy from other people, he sparked off other people all the time. There’s nothing more exciting than if you think something is really cool and then someone that you respect starts to also say it is really cool. Once he became involved with something and was invigorated by it, he was a bit of a machine really.’’


Sir Paul set up a company to commercialise his NMR technology in 2004. Magritek began with two staff and enough funding for 6 months. The company makes and sells portable NMR measuring devices using a scaled-down version of the science used in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans. By 2012 this had grown to 23 staff, and its clients include international oil companies and pharmaceutical companies. Find out mroe about Magritek's successes here.

Science is grounded in evidence and consistency, but scientific insights are always creative acts. We are always looking for a new direction to explore or a new experimental trick for encouraging nature to reveal herself.


When asked what he was most proud of, Sir Paul replied, “Professionally, what I’m most proud of is the young people who have come out of my lab. I’ve had 24 PhD students, numerous master’s students and all the people I’ve taught at undergraduate. The graduate students have all done incredibly well. Everyone who comes out of my lab gets two or three job offers, all over the world.” One of those PhD students, Andrew Coy, who worked with Sir Paul for 25 years and now runs Magritek, says, ‘‘He was just always so energising and passionate about what he did. When I was doing my PhD, we’d be sitting there doing some experiments getting all excited and suddenly it would be 3am. I would drag myself back into the lab in the morning and Paul had already been in there and started the next experiment and was excited about the results of the next one.”

Science communicator

Sir Paul was also a gifted science communicator. He took part in a series on Radio New Zealand, which resulted in the book As Far as We Know: Conversations about Science, Life and the Universe. He wanted to convince New Zealanders that science could be interesting and comprehensible. In 2009, he published Wool to Weta: Transforming New Zealand’s Culture and Economy, which deals with the potential for science and technology entrepreneurialism to diversify New Zealand’s economy.


He was the recipient of numerous awards, including:

  • Fellow of the Royal Society of London – 2001
  • Rutherford Medal – 2005
  • Principal Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit – 2006
  • James Cook Research Fellowship, Royal Society of New Zealand – 2008
  • Knighthood – 2009
  • Günther Laukien Prize for Magnetic Resonance – 2010
  • New Zealander of the Year – 2011.

Activity idea

Sir Paul Callaghan was excited by the possibilities of scientific research and sought to communicate that to other New Zealanders. Your students may like to watch these videos clips, in which other scientists discuss what excites them about their work.
The buzz of microscopy
The buzz of being first
Working as an ecologist
My interest in bryozoans

    Published 3 April 2012