The Boy Chemist at 75, continued

On MacDiarmid’s curriculum vitae, what stands out most is not the 600-plus published scientific papers he has co-authored or his many awards, honorary degrees, and memberships on editorial boards of international journals, but his first chemistry job—as a “lab boy” in the chemistry department at Victoria University of Wellington. He still lists the position, which he began at the age of 16, because, he says, “I feel it’s important to show that I was a part-time student all the way through.”

Still, MacDiarmid doesn’t focus on his plebeian past. “People always say to me, ‘You have truly achieved, given where you came from.’ But I was brought up in New Zealand doing a lot of mountaineering. When you do mountaineering, you don’t ever look behind you at where you came from. You look at the mountains ahead of you.”

In 1948, MacDiarmid became the only one of his siblings to graduate from college, with a B.Sc. from Victoria University. He was then awarded a Fulbright fellowship, which he used to earn a Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry from the University of Wisconsin. There, he met his future wife, Marian, with whom he had four children. After using a New Zealand Shell graduate scholarship to study silicon hydrides at the University of Cambridge and earn a doctorate in organic chemistry, he accepted a junior position in the Department of Chemistry at Penn in 1955, and has been here ever since.

When MacDiarmid was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2000, he became the first Penn professor to receive this distinction in 20 years, and Penn’s only chemistry professor to do so. [Several chemistry alumni, however, are Nobelists, with whom MacDiarmid shares a recently established exhibit in the Chemistry Building, described on page 15—Ed.] The work that won the prize was completed in three labs at Penn by the three co-winners. Of this fact, Penn’s provost, Dr. Robert Barchi Gr’72 M’72, is especially proud: “We want to underscore the interdisciplinary nature of this accomplishment. The work they have done has cut across traditional disciplinary boundaries.”

MACDIARMID’S CRAMPED THIRD-FLOOR OFFICE in the Chemistry Building at 34th and Spruce streets is cluttered with Asian knick-knacks, boomerangs, and a few scummy bowls of magnetic fish that clink around in odd harmony. Chemistry texts spill from every wall. MacDiarmid tries to sit down and talk, but is unable to stay in one spot for more than a few minutes. He springs from his chair to hunt down a piece of nicotine gum (he quit a one-and-a-half-pack-a-day habit three years ago). He springs from his chair to rummage through presentation materials. He springs from his chair to look for a picture. Joke with his secretary. Greet a passerby … He peppers his dialogue with the Kiwi phrase Jolly good! His energy level belies his years. His lean physique attests to his lifelong love of outdoor activities such as water-skiing, which he enjoys at his vacation home on Lake Wallenpaupack in the Poconos.

In between preparing coffee and looking for things amid the clutter, MacDiarmid affirms his belief that research and teaching go hand-in-hand. It is a conviction that he acts on personally—for example, he is currently teaching freshman general chemistry for the first time in years. He says he extended the offer as a way of showing his gratitude to Penn for supporting his research, which is principally funded by the U.S. Office of Naval Research and the National Science Foundation, all these years. But the benefit is clearly mutual. “I enjoy the interaction with inquiring young minds,” he says, adding that last semester’s freshman seminar was, for him, the most enjoyable class he has taught in his 46 years at Penn.

He recalls a lecture last fall in which he was talking about the attractive forces that conjoin positive sodium and negative chloride ions to form NaCl, or table salt. A student raised his hand and, noting that positive and negative charges can also repel each other, asked why the salt crystals don’t explode. “I had paraphrased this process over and over again through the years,” MacDiarmid says, a chiseled grin widening across his congenial face, “and no one had ever questioned it. But now I had to go home and think about the answer. At the next class, I explained that the crystal structure that forms is the most stable. So the crystal form exists because the overall net attractive forces are stronger than the overall net repulsive forces. But the student’s question stimulated me to reexamine things.”

Dr. Hai-Lung Dai, chairman of the Department of Chemistry, adds that MacDiarmid’s freshman lecture will likely encourage more students to embark on science careers shortly after matriculating at Penn. Dai notes that the number of foreign Ph.D. applicants to Penn’s chemistry program has tripled since MacDiarmid’s Nobel was announced.

Barchi feels that Penn’s student body has a tremendous resource in MacDiarmid. “I am so impressed with him as a person, how warm he is, how committed he is to the education of his students and his junior colleagues,” he says.

His former students fondly remember their days with MacDiarmid, who taught them to be critical thinkers. “He would not challenge you directly,” recalls Tang, who earned his Ph.D. under MacDiarmid’s tutelage in 1991, “but he would ask you to challenge your own conclusion by asking you to look at a problem from different angles.”

McAndrew says that MacDiarmid read every word of his dissertation, a rare occurrence among Ph.D. advisers. “He is obsessed with doing things the right way,” he adds. “He would always make sure I was doing the right thing and writing down correctly what I observed. He would say, ‘If you write it up or present it in a sloppy manner, no one will believe it.’”

In industry, McAndrew has succeeded in the challenging pursuit of technology transfer from laboratory to store shelf. He credits his days with MacDiarmid for the wisdom that enabled him to prosper. “He taught me less about chemistry than you’d think, and more about life than you’d think.”

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