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Rethinking Creativity with Sir Paul Callaghan

An interview with New Zealander of the Year 2011 Sir Paul Callaghan, who will be addressing the creative sector at Survive & Thrive on July 14.


A physicist may seem like an unlikely person to address the creative sector forum, Survive & Thrive.

But as Professor Sir Paul Callaghan explains in this interview, scientific insights are creative acts and boosting our creativity is key to growing our ‘smart’ industries in NZ.

“We need to discover what works for us, what gives us our global advantage. Find what is best in our society and nurture it. Find what we do badly and correct it. And most importantly of all, grow out of adolescence into adulthood.”

Renee Liang interviews New Zealander of the Year 2011 Sir Paul Callaghan, who will be delivering a video address at Survive & Thrive on July 14.

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Sir Paul is a physicist, teacher and communicator who has won many scientific accolades for his work in nano-technology and magnetic resonance. His experience and vision allow him to apply great depth of perception to his work in science and entrepreneurialism. He’s also the 2011 New Zealander of the Year, in part for his ability to bridge disciplines, and communicate how we need to work together to move this country forward.

Over the years, Sir Paul has written and broadcast widely, aiming to make science more accessible for all.  He advocates the use of the arts to explain and explore science and find the human connection. To paraphrase, the arts helps to seek out that sense of wonder in science - to translate the ‘cold’ mathematical language of science (properties, dimensions) into something which speaks to people (emotions, colours, senses).  He’s also spoken on how science is influenced by art and vice versa, observing that scientists ‘borrow’ the words used by the arts to connect with other parts of human creativity. (Unsurprisingly, many scientists – Sir Paul among them – are also artistic).

Sir Paul is also a firm believer in the future of New Zealand, although he says that significant changes need to be made in order to unleash our full potential.  His recent address to StrategyNZ: Mapping our Future 2011 makes some very strong points.

His message is simple: NZ has limited natural resources, despite our blind belief in the ‘clean green 100% Pure’ image. We are behind in the world in terms of ‘smart’ industries, those which rely on good ideas cleverly executed rather than our traditional primary industries (farming, tourism) which are resource-heavy with a low relative return. He offers the staggering idea that 100 inspired entrepreneurs could double our present exports - around $4 billion of exports a year is currently earned by the high-tech and creative sector. And how would we do that? The answer is deceptively easy: grow our ‘smart’ industries.

How would this happen? That’s right – boosting creativity is the key.  For it’s in the ‘weird niche’ stuff in which New Zealanders excel. The top-earning company in NZ is Fisher and Paykel, which dominates the world market in (no, not washing machines): technology for CPAP, used for supporting premature babies and sleep apnoea sufferers. Also in the top-ten list is special-effects company Weta. And the rest of the companies you’ve probably never heard of, because mostly they export overseas (where they are well-known for innovation) and don’t bother with brand-name marketing in NZ.

Sir Paul makes the point that for most of these industries, you probably wouldn’t be able to predict that New Zealanders would turn out to be world-beaters.  As he says, “you are good at what you are good at,” and government funders often pick the wrong horse to back.  Despite this, creativity and innovation continue to thrive in NZ – probably due to tenacity and passion rather than anything else.

But this self-reliance also means that our creativity could thrive anywhere. What would make a creative leader want to stay in NZ?  Sir Paul thinks our culture and environment are what people remain loyal to.  We (and this is me extending the thought) are open thinkers; we pride ourselves on considering the views of others; we live in a country that, despite all attempts to exploit it, remains scenically beautiful and accessible. Change that and wave goodbye to the talent.

Sound good? Come to Survive & Thrive on July 14 and catch the full conversation with Sir Paul and many other insightful speakers. But here’s a brief taster of the way Sir Paul connects creativity, science and moving forward:

Do you consider yourself a creative?

Yes, I think so, in the sense that science is a creative activity, and in the sense that I like to think through problems and come up with new ideas.

What’s your personal relationship to Art?

I like music and occasionally play the horn.  I am dragged along by my wife to look at fine art, painting, photography and so on. But the art I am closest to is drama, poetry and the written word. I love the music and cadence of the English language.

What role does creativity play in your work?

A great deal.  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.

Is science a cultural product?

Yes, in that it springs from values. That knowledge is never to be feared, that nature is rational if not benign, that consistency is vital and that scepticism is a virtue. Science springs from a world view that there does exist truth beyond the "human belief engine" and that humanity does not represent the centre of all being. That cultural perspective is fundamentally different from religion for example.

One of your special areas of interest is the collaboration between art and science, and the strength they bring to each other.  How could we enhance communication and sharing between these two ‘industries’?

With respect for each, with appreciation for each, but with a recognition that these are separate and independently valuable in their own paradigms. For example, you can write Maxwell's equations in poetry, as one of our poets did in "Are Angels OK". But expressed in the mathematics of differential equations, Maxwell’s equations carry infinitely more power, meaning and value. Equally, nothing in science can express the human condition with quite the power that Shakespeare did.

In one of your interviews, you mention this quote by physicist and musician Richard Feynman: “One has to have the imagination to think of something that has never been seen before, never been heard of before. At the same time the thoughts are restricted...the problem of creating something which is new, but which is consistent with everything which has been seen before, is one of extreme difficulty.”  How is the act of creating science different from other creative acts?

Very different, because of the consistency rule. In science, there is no value in an idea which is beautiful, and which explains some particular phenomenon, if it stands in violation with all we know about the universe. Second, an idea is useless if it does not predict something that we would otherwise not have known, and which therefore makes a prediction which can be tested. These are brutally tough tests. I can develop a new type of art by throwing paint at a wall, and it may have real value to many. Science sets requirements for new insights which require that all that is known (based on evidence) is incorporated.

How would we improve not only retention, but also attraction of creative talent to New Zealand?

By ensuring that our physical and social environment is conducive to quality of life, and by seeing ourselves differently, as a country dependent on talent and in which talent can thrive.  We need to raise the quality of our performance in every sphere of life.

What steps can the creative sector take to be better recognized and supported?

By manifestly demonstrating their value proposition, by making clear the benefits to all of their creative endeavours. They need their champions and storytellers and these must be people of broad vision who can build bridges between communities and perspectives.

What ideas have you seen from your travels overseas that could be applied to the creative industries here?

No one owes us a living. No one cares a damn if we feed ourselves falsehoods about imagined superiority. We are the only ones who suffer. Other countries are beautiful too. Other countries are clean. Other countries are clever and innovative. Other countries are great at sport.  We have very little to teach the world.  We have much to learn from the world.

We need to discover what works for us, what gives us our global advantage.  Find what is best in our society and nurture it. Find what we do badly and correct it. And most importantly of all, grow out of adolescence into adulthood. Avoid the self-serving myths, the phoney shallow game playing, the selective thinking that blights our ability to progress. Face up to our problems, solve them and move on.  Then we can truly stand tall.


* Professor Sir Paul Callaghan is also a 2007 Blake Medalist, and his interviewer Dr Renee Liang is a 2010 Sir Peter Blake Emerging Leader.

Written by

Renee Liang

7 Jul 2011

Renee is a writer who is exploring many ways of telling stories, including plays, short stories, poetry (which she also performs), and cross-genre collaborations with composers, musicians, sculptors and filmmakers.

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