Excerpts from the October 10 Press Conference with "the father of Synthetic Metals," Penn's newest Nobelist and the Chemistry Department's first professor to win.

 For Penn Nobel Laureates,
See the list on the University Archives website

The Long and Winding Road to the Nobel Prize for Alan MacDiarmid

Dr. MacDiarmid in his laboratory.

Provost Robert Barchi, "on behalf of President Rodin and the entire community of scholars here at Penn" introduced Nobel laureate, Professor Alan MacDiarmid.

Alan MacDiarmid

I would like to thank you for your very kind comments and to say that from my point of view (I have now started my 43rd year as a fulltime member of the faculty of the Chemistry Department at Penn) that I greatly appreciate the magnificent climate which Penn has provided us. My colleagues in all the departments at the University carry out research as well as the extremely important complimentary aspect of university life, namely teaching undergraduates and graduates in the classroom. However, one point that is frequently overlooked, is that research--undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral students--is also teaching. Quite often, teaching is considered to take place only in the classroom, or in a laboratory associated with a lecture course. However, it also encompasses work in the research laboratory. This involves a one-to-one faculty to student ratio! It's been a great climate here at Penn for all of us and a wonderful academic home.

Responding to Reporters

Is there any "eureka" moment that spawned this research? How did this all come together?

It really stems from the fact that I like color. I like pretty things. I had the good fortune to be a visiting professor at Kyoto University in 1975 where I was giving a lecture at Tokyo Institute of Technology. After the lecture, I was sitting down at a low table having a cup of green tea and there was this young junior faculty member sitting on my left--Dr. Hideki Shirakawa. I was showing him my golden-colored, electrically conducting, inorganic polymer, poly sulfurnitride. Then he said to me, " I have something like that, also." He showed me a silver colored polymer, polyacetylene. I said to him, "If I can get some money, could you come and join me for a year at Penn to study it?" He said "yes."

When I got back to Penn I called my contracting officer, Dr. Kenneth J. Wynne, of the Office of Naval Research. He became the first person in the world to put any money into financing research in this new area of science, which has now spread worldwide. I called him and said, " Can you possibly give me money for a post-doctoral appointment?" He said, "Why?" And I said, "I saw this beautiful silvery organic polymer; I've never seen a silvery polymer before." He said, "Write me a letter." I wrote him a letter, and a couple weeks later he called and said, okay, we'll add another $20,000-$22,000 to my already existing grant. "I'm probably crazy to do this since you know nothing about polymers, but, I have a hunch." The worldwide field of synthetic metals, conductive polymers, electronic polymers, was dependent on this one person, Ken Wynne on getting it started. Funding agencies have such tremendous control on directions science will develop.

I contacted Shirakawa; he came and joined us, here in the Chemistry Department. He had previously found that this silvery polymer had shown some conductivity--not very high--but its elemental analysis showed there was impurity in it. So we said, if we make it more pure, we should get a higher conductivity. Hideki got it purer and purer by its elemental analysis but found that the purer it got, the more the conductivity decreased instead of increasing as we had expected! Then we thought, maybe the impurity acts as a dopant. We added some bromine, a very small amount, and later an iodine dopant, just the same iodine you have in your medicine closet in the bathroom, and suddenly the conductivity increased within a few minutes--about a million times higher!

Then, since I knew essentially nothing about physics, I contacted my colleague, Professor Alan Heeger in the Physics Department. Alan said, he was probably crazy to get involved with some yucky, horrible polymer stuff; but he was brave enough, or foolish enough, to do so and we then had a very fruitful and exciting collaboration for about ten years.

After Hideki Shirakawa went back to Japan, other people joined my group. We did the chemistry and electrochemistry and Alan Heeger and his group did the physics. During part of this time, he was director of our Laboratory for Research on the Structure of Matter. We would get together every Saturday morning. This was strictly not to discuss anything specific--purely to sit down and let our minds wander and consider crazy things, which we did. It was exciting and fun.

Is this award something you were expecting this long after--more than 20 years after--you'd done some of this research?

The first thing: we were fascinated by--we were excited about the science. In other words, we lived it, breathed it, slept it, dreamed it; complete immersion. And at first people didn't necessarily believe what we were saying, but that slowly changed.

If you go to Las Vegas or Atlantic City and put a quarter in the slot machine, a vague thought goes through your mind that maybe you might hit the jackpot. Similarly, if you go into a lab and play around with new things, the thought vaguely goes through your mind that maybe you might hit a scientific jackpot. But it's not something you really consider seriously.

What do you plan to do with the money?

Since I'm grateful to Penn and the climate and the administration and my colleagues and to the students--both undergraduate and graduate--the thought has gone through my mind that I would like to repay Penn and the students by helping in some aspect of the undergraduate and graduate education, or some aspect of research.

One Plus One Can Make More Than Two

Did this discovery and all these years of research change any of your ideas about the universe or did it do anything to you philosophically or religiously?

It did change my thoughts about how one does research and how research might develop in the future. Research used to be a primarily restricted to one's own discipline. If you were a chemist, you did chemistry research. If you were a physicist, you did physics research.

This award is a wonderful recognition of the importance of interdisciplinary research. Here we have chemists, physicists, electrochemists and now electronic engineers all working together on the same problem. If you have a physicist and a chemist having different concepts, different abilities, different techniques all working the same problems, we have "one plus one can often make more than two." The development of this whole synthetic metal field worldwide is probably one of the best examples in the last two or three decades of interdisciplinary research.

Science in the future is going to utilize the concept of interdisciplinary research much more, where people get together to solve a given scientific problem-people with completely different backgrounds. Alan Heeger and I found, however, you have to learn a different language--a different lingo--for a physicist to talk to a chemist and a chemist to talk to a physicist. It's not easy; it's much easier just to do research in your own discipline. It's tougher to do interdisciplinary research. But I have no doubt that we will see interdisciplinary research receiving more and more attention in the future.

In our own research we have had chemists, and physicists working closely together. This brings home the enormous importance of discussion in research. You can be the most brilliant scientist in all the world; put you on a desert island with the very best scientific equipment and the very best library and you'll do uninteresting research. You must have interaction. You must have discussion.

This award to to Alan Heeger and to Hideki Shirakawa and me is recognition of the work that we have done--each of us individually and together. We have been fortunate to have first-class students--undergraduate, graduate and post-doctoral--in our groups. And I always say research coming from a given group can never be better than the people carrying it out. The prize is recognition of their work.

Let's say that I had some brilliant crazy idea to turn lead into gold and I asked a student who is not very good. He will say, "Well I tried to turn lead into gold and it didn't work. I tried it six times and it didn't work." Then I might turn to a very good student who might come back after a week and say, "Well, I've been able to turn a little bit of lead into gold." So what's the difference? If you have very good people working, not for you but with you, then the chances of finding very important, critical, unexpected things are pretty high.

 Dr. David White, professor of chemistry and former chair of the department (1966-79) at left, proposed a toast to Dr. MacDiarmid, his long-time colleague, after the press conference. Well-wishers gathered in the Chemistry Building, including George Palladino, center.

Almanac, Vol. 47, No. 8, October 17, 2000

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