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The Boy Chemist at 75
Well over a half-century and one Nobel Prize later, Penn Professor Alan G. MacDiarmid stillpossesses—and communicates to students—the energy and enthusiasm of a 10-year old with his first chemistry book.
BYJOAN P. CAPUZZI GIRESI


PHOTOGRAPHY BY JIM GRAHAM
Most people on an airplane sink into their seats, and then into their books. Or work. Or idle conversation. Most people do not spend a lot of time looking out the window, and if they do they’re generally not thinking about much of anything (unless they happen to be nervous fliers). But Dr. Alan G. MacDiarmid—Blanchard Professor of Chemistry at Penn, “father” of conducting polymers, 2000 Nobel laureate—is not most people. Every time MacDiarmid travels by air, he gazes into the hinterlands of 30,000 feet above-sea-level. For years he has been trying to figure out how those fluffy cumulus clouds can appear to have sharply-defined edges if they’re made up of free-floating vapor.

Now in his eighth decade, long after most of us have learned all we ever will (or want to), MacDiarmid is still a little boy full of questions, his youthful mind a great, insatiable sponge. He delights in being stumped by an offbeat query from one of his chemistry students, and then searching for the answer. He keeps a notebook by his bed to record the nocturnal inspirations that race from his vigorous psyche. He teaches himself Mandarin Chinese and cell biology, both for the sake of his research.

Dr. William Salaneck, professor of surface physics and chemistry at Link–ping University in Sweden, who nominated MacDiarmid for the 2000 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, cites his “tremendous chemical intuition” to explain how MacDiarmid personifies the unique spirit Alfred Nobel called for in his last will and testament in setting up the prize to recognize those who have “bestowed the greatest benefit on mankind.”

MacDiarmid’s former graduate student Dr. Xun Tang, now a project leader at Rohm and Haas Company in Spring House, Pennsylvania, says, “He asks questions others wouldn’t ask. He pays attention to phenomena that others would have slept through.” Like billowy clouds during airplane rides. And silvery glop that most people would summarily discard.


 

 

 

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