‘What really counts in life is love’

by The Listener / 04 July, 2013
Listener science writer Rebecca Priestley reviews Paul Callaghan's digital compilation of speeches and essays.
Luminous Moments by Paul Callaghan
Paul Callaghan: science and love. Photo/Jane Ussher

At the New Zealand Association of Scientists conference in April, Science and Innovation Minister Steven Joyce peppered his speech with references to an entity he called Callaghan. It seems that in the year since Sir Paul Callaghan died, “Callaghan” has stopped meaning Paul and come to mean Callaghan Innovation, the science and innovation organisation named after him.

Nice, then, to hear from Paul again. Luminous Moments is a digital compilation of seven of his speeches and essays, with a moving foreword by his daughter, Catherine Callaghan. But there are no speeches about economics or pest-free New Zealand here – this is a deeply personal collection.

The title essay, first published in Are Angel’s OK? The Parallel Universes of New Zealand Writers and Scientists (2006), traces Callaghan’s life in science from boyhood adventures growing up in Whanganui. The most technical piece, The Beauty of Magnetic Resonance, goes deep into his specialist topic of nuclear magnetic resonance. Paul’s love of science is evident in the language he uses: alongside references to non-Gaussian echo attenuations and nuclear spins are words like “wonderful”, “beauty” and “brilliant”.

Luminous Moments by Paul CallaghanBut the most remarkable pieces are two previously unpublished writings about Paul’s cancer: A Week In My Life, written a week after his first cancer diagnosis and surgery, and Speaking as a Cancer Patient, an adaptation of a speech delivered at Wellington Hospital. “I was about to enter an extraordinary journey, one that no sane person would choose to undergo,” he writes, “but which, once committed to, represented one of the more remarkable and enriching experiences of my life.” His writing is often intense and moving, but he maintains a level of scientific detachment and deep curiosity when it comes to the clinical details. As Catherine says in her foreword, instead of saying “Why me?”, Paul would say, “Why not me?” ”He applied his rational and analytical scientific mind to both the cause of his cancer and its treatment.”

In a 2010 address to Victoria University, Paul said how to live one’s life lay in a paradox: “To live each day as though it were our last and, at the same time, to live as though we will live forever.” After his cancer diagnosis, he talked a lot about love. “What really counts in life is love: to do the work that you love, to find the partner you love, to act always with love, wasting not a moment in anger or hostility. The prospect of death makes each living moment vital, each action significant, each spoken word of immense importance.”

LUMINOUS MOMENTS, by Paul Callaghan (BWB Texts ebook, $4.99).

Listener science writer Rebecca Priestley is author, most recently, of Mad on Radium: New Zealand in the Atomic Age.
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