Luminous Moments

By Grant Jacobs 11/05/2015

Paul Callaghan is well-known to many New Zealanders as a scientist and science communicator. His little book, Luminous Moments, published posthumously, is well worth while reading.

It contains “some of his more personal speeches and essays”, seven in all, apparently edited from his hospital bed. The book is put together and prefaced by a foreword by Paul’s daughter, Catherine.

It is a little book. Aside from Catherine Callaghan’s introduction, there are 73 small pages. The book is approximately 11cm by 18cm. It’s small size will suit a cozy hour or two, or perhaps to take on a weekend tramp or short cycle trip. I’d like to think New Zealanders wanting a physical copy will find one at major libraries. (It’s also available as an e-book.)

Paul has sketches out his topics briefly, in telling fashion.

The book touches on him growing up, developing as young scientist, his scientific work, pseudo-science, his cancer and surgery, fatherhood, closing with parting wisdom. It could be read by from mid-teens onward.

There’s thoughts about science and scientists –

“All of us who do science are different personality types. But we all labour under the same discipline.” (later: “We have to face facts, and face regular failure.”)

As someone who writes about science, his brief comparison of scientists and writers interested –

“And, of course, we scientists are all writers,” … “Most scientists long to indulge in metaphor, leaping to speak of ‘colour charge’ … or refer to the origin of the universe as ‘the big bang’.”

“For creative writers, the struggle is usually lonely and peculiarly personal. For scientists, we mostly work in teams, … even if as theorists we calculate alone, we are motivated to find accordance with our experimental colleagues. Science is an intensely social activity.”

There’s so much I could ruminate on here, including my experiences in different settings.

One chapter is a transcribed interview with well-known radio journalist Kim Hill covering pseudo-science. Kim stands in for supporters of pseudo-science, challenging Paul who notes the characteristics of pseudo science and the issues with it. (He judges pseudo-science to be characterised by putting claims direct to media [rather than peer-review], being based on anecdotal evidence/examples, invoking conspiracies as suppresses their views, and that claims made are frequently at margins of detectability.) This chapter contains a nice account of nine year old Emily’s experimental study on therapeutic touch. He doesn’t object to faith healers, on the grounds that they offer what they do straight-forwardly.*

He mentions of the use of trials and statistics in biology. Although not said, this relates to his own trial of high-dose vitamin C as a remedy –

“By the way, in my own scientific profession of physics, we seldom do statistics. Unlike the infinite variability of biology, and human patients in particular, atoms are atoms.” This leads to Rutherford’s famous quote about statistics to the effect that if an experiment needed statistics, it was poorly done. “He [Rutherford] was referring to physics. But in biology n=1 simply won’t do. In drug trials, hundreds or even thousands of patients are the norm.” He continues, offering a concise summary of the key issues.

The book closes with four stories, with parted wisdom. I’ll leave these for readers to discover, bar part of one for any (younger) scientist or student readers looking forward: “See the opportunities in new directions.”


* In a tangentially related way, one issue with groups offering ‘alternative’ science or medical advice is that they ought to be straight-forward about the aims of their group to those looking to join, but those I’ve seen often aren’t.

The book

Luminous Moments

Paul Callaghan, foreward by Catherine Callaghan.

Published by BWB Texts as an e-book in 2013; paperback in 2014. ISBN for paperback edition: 9781927277492

Some other book reviews at Code for life:

Mad on Radium

A Geek Nation reviewed

Lab lit: for bookworms who like the science to be plausible

Science-y reading

Explore ancient science books on-line

More science in literature done right

Book review: Victorian Popularizers of Science