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Dr. Alan G. MacDiarmid

“This award, I think, is an award to Penn, and it’s an award to interdisciplinary science throughout the world,” Dr. Alan G. MacDiarmid, the Blanchard Professor of Chemistry, was saying. “It is also an award to the teaching of young persons and to the teaching of older persons. Because all of us here are students.”
    MacDiarmid made his characteristically generous remarks to a group of administrators and faculty who had gathered in Houston Hall last month to honor him for winning the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, an award he shared with former Penn physics professor Dr. Alan J. Heeger (now at the University of California-Santa Barbara) and Dr. Hideki Shirakawa of the University of Tsukuba, Japan. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the prize to the three for the discovery and development of conductive polymers.
    “Most of us recognize plastics to be insulators—things that are wrapped around the wires to keep electricity from being lost —but Alan and his colleagues made the revolutionary discovery that plastics can, after certain modifications, be made electrically conductive,” said Dr. Robert Barchi Gr’72 M’72 GM’73, the provost. “This discovery created a research field of great importance to both chemists and physicists,” he added, one that “unleashed a flood of interdisciplinary studies that continue to grow today.” It has also led to such wide-ranging applications as shields for computer screens, rechargeable batteries and flexible plastic transistors and electrodes, to name just a few.
    The award comes a year after another member of the Penn community—Dr. Ahmed Zewail Gr’74 Hon’97—garnered the 1999 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and three years after Dr. Stanley B. Prusiner C’64 M’68 Hon’98 won the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. But it is the first time that a member of the Penn faculty has won a Nobel Prize since 1980, when Dr. Lawrence R. Klein, the Benjamin Franklin Professor Emeritus of Economics, won in economics. The 73-year-old MacDiarmid has been a member of the Penn faculty since 1955, having studied at the University of New Zealand, the University of Cambridge and the University of Wisconsin. He has won numerous other awards.
    Penn’s president, Dr. Judith Rodin CW’66, said that the prize is a “validation of the extraordinary faculty that we have,” and that MacDiarmid’s work “is at the pinnacle of the interdisciplinary nature of our aspirations.”
    The interdisciplinary collaboration between MacDiarmid and Heeger, a physicist who served as director of Penn’s Laboratory for Research on the Structure of Matter [LRSM], was indeed vital to the discovery.
   “This experiment in interdisciplinary research at LRSM has been a real model for the rest of the world,” agreed MacDiarmid. “As Alan Heeger and I found, you have to learn a different language, a different lingo, for a physicist to talk to a chemist and a chemist to a physicist.”
    MacDiarmid, Heeger and Shirakawa showed that polymers can conduct electricity if they are “doped” by removing or introducing electrons, and if they consist alternately of single and double bonds between carbon atoms. According to his homepage, MacDiarmid began research in 1973 on (SN)x, “an unusual polymeric material with metallic conductivity,” but his interest in organic conducting polymers “began in 1975 when he was introduced to a new form of polyacetylene” by Shirakawa.
    MacDiarmid recalled that he invited Shirakawa to Penn to study polymers after they met over a cup of green tea at a conference at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, where MacDiarmid was giving a lecture. When MacDiarmid—who noted that he likes “pretty things”—showed Shirakawa a “golden-colored” polymer made of silver nitride, Shirakawa showed him a “beautiful silvery polymer” made of polyacetylene.
    “I said, ‘If I can get some money, could you come and join me for a year at Penn?’” MacDiarmid said. “And he said ‘Yes.’”
    While at Penn, they soon found that Shirakawa’s silvery polymer “showed some conductivity, not very high, but this elemental analysis also showed that there was impurity in it. So we said, ‘Well, obviously, you make it more pure, you get a higher conductivity.’” But, MacDiarmid noted, Shirakawa found that “the purer he got it, the more the conductivity decreased instead of increasing.” They then added iodine, which removed some of the tightly packed electrons, “and suddenly the conductivity increased within a few seconds to millions and billions of times higher than what it was before.”
    MacDiarmid and Heeger enjoyed a “very, very crucial and successful collaboration for about 10 years,” MacDiarmid recalled. “We would arrange to get together every Saturday morning—we strictly said not to discuss anything specific; purely to sit down and let our minds wander and consider crazy things, which we did.”
    From his point of view, MacDiarmid said, the “whole climate of Penn is really just great” for research, and its interdisciplinary strengths are complemented by the quality of its students.
    “We all know that the research done in a given research group cannot be better than the students—undergraduate, graduate or post-doctoral,” he said. “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.”

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