Scoop Review of Books

Clear Science

Luminous Moments
by Paul Callaghan (BWB Texts, paper $14.99; e-book $4.99)
Reviewed by Judith Nathan

BWB Callaghan-002As a former Massey University staff member, I was well aware of the eminence of our long serving professor of physics. In one of the items in this collection of seven recent writings and speeches, Sir Paul Callaghan attributed his interest in Nuclear Magnetic Resonance, the field in which he made his international reputation, to his appointment to a small university science department largely comprising chemists.

It was really after his move to Wellington, to Victoria University, that it became apparent that Sir Paul was much more than an eminent physicist. He not only gathered a group of talented scientists around him to progress his research and founded a company to promote its commercial application, but he also made it his mission to explain the importance of good science to the general public, for example in interviews on National Radio with Kim Hill. One of these is published in this collection; there is also an item on pseudo-science. Even more admirably, he chose to publicly share many aspects of his three years of treatment for the cancer that sadly killed him at 64: these items serve as a reminder of the tremendous amount that Sir Paul achieved in this last phase of his life.

This is the sort of publication for which BWB texts seem admirably suited. It has preserved important insights into the human condition and made them widely accessible, initially as an e-book and now in hard copy. Most of the items in this collection, such as the 2010 graduation address to Victoria University, were essentially ephemeral in nature and would otherwise soon have been forgotten. Only one, “The Beauty of Magnetic Resonance”, was too technical for me to digest.

His friend Helen Sutch has done us a great service by encouraging Sir Paul to prepare some of his speeches for posthumous publication, leading to this inspiring and moving sampling of Sir Paul’s thoughts. His daughter Catherine has contributed a thoughtful, enlightening introduction. Having heard an outstanding speech on the importance of innovation to New Zealand’s future, I brought high expectations to this small volume: it lived up to them.

(Other titles in the BWB Texts series are reviewed here.)