The Nobel-prize winning naturist - Alan MacDiarmid remembered

By Kent Atkinson of NZPA

New Zealand's only surviving Nobel laureate - research chemist Alan Graham MacDiarmid - died in Philadelphia yesterday while preparing for a visit to New Zealand.

The 79-year-old scientist and academic suffered a fall at home, his sister Alice Palmer, of Auckland, said today.

Professor MacDiarmid was born in Masterton, on April 14, 1927, to former marine engineer Archibald MacDiarmid, and Ruby Graham, the daughter of a surveyor.

He grew up in the depression years at Kerikeri and in the Hutt Valley and put himself through Wellington's Victoria University with part-time study before moving overseas for further study, and a lifetime's academic work at Pennsylvania University, and research in many parts of the world.

Prof MacDiarmid won the 2000 Nobel prize for chemistry with Pennsylvania University physicist, Professor Alan Heeger, and Hideki Shirakawa of the Tokyo Institute of Technology after they showed some plastics could be made to conduct electricity by incorporating impurities.

This discovery in polymers long considered only as insulators paved the way for the next generation of plastics.

The discovery that a thin film of polyacetylene could be oxidised with iodine vapour, increasing its electrical conductivity a billion times made it possible for plastics to be used to reduce static electricity and interference on photographic film and computer screens.

The plastics were also used in the development of new colour television screens and "smart windows" that reflected sunlight.

In addition, semi-conductive polymers were developed in organic light-emitting diodes (OLED), solar cells and as displays in mobile telephones and mini-format television screens.

Flat television screens based on OLED film, luminous traffic signs and information signs are on the way, as manufacturers develop light-emitting wallpaper for homes.

Before his Nobel win, Prof MacDiarmid was awarded an honorary doctorate of science at Victoria University, and he has worked with researchers there and at Industrial Research Ltd on projects such as an "electronic nose" using his conducting polymers.

After the Nobel presentation in Stockholm, there were other honours around the world for Prof MacDiarmid, particularly in New Zealand.

In 2001 he was awarded New Zealand's highest honour when he was made a Member of the Order of New Zealand for his contribution to chemistry and the New Zealand science community. The order has only 20 living members at any time.

He was also given the nation's top science award, the Rutherford Medal, in 2001.

Prof MacDiarmid never lost his "Kiwi" outlook on the world.

He was 60 when he received his Nobel, but colleagues in New Zealand described him then as still working 12-hour days and frequently travelling, with joint research projects around the globe.

Once, he interrupted a trip to Australia to fly back to Pennsylvania to teach a class, after which he immediately returned to Australia to pick up where he had left off.

KIWI AND NATURIST

And though the professor was in a laboratory somewhere every day, he was also an avid sun-worshipper - a naturist who also liked waterskiing.

On the presentation of the Rutherford Medal, he said: "I still consider myself a 'Kiwi', a New Zealander!"

"I am still legally a New Zealand citizen and have had, and still do have, continuing ties with New Zealand and my brothers and sister and many relatives who live in New Zealand," he said.

He became a US citizen in the late 1960s, but had regular contact with his surviving sister, Mrs Palmer, and his two brothers at Kerikeri, Roderick and Colin. Another sister, Sheila, died in Whangarei in 1997.

He tried at one stage of his career to return to New Zealand but could not get an academic job: "I really loved New Zealand and the life, and the open spaces, but at the time I was looking for positions, there was none available," he later told NZPA.

After winning the Nobel -- and a share of its US$915,000 ($2.3 million) prize -- the academic told NZPA that his father grew up with New Zealand's first Nobel Prize winner, Lord Ernest Rutherford, who, he said, dedicated himself to making champagne out of rhubarb, before later splitting the atom.

Lord Rutherford also won the Nobel for chemistry after splitting the atom in 1908. He died in 1937.

New Zealand's only other Nobel winner, Maurice Wilkins, who shared a Nobel Prize in 1962 for the work that led to the unveiling of DNA, the blueprint of life, died in 2004, aged 87.

Prof MacDiarmid described his own award as a wonderful recognition of the importance of interdisciplinary research, with chemists, physicists, electrochemists and electronic engineers all working together on the same problem.

And he used his new profile to urge New Zealanders to worry less about losing university graduates to the "brain drain" and more about encouraging people into studying science subjects in the first place.

"The 'brain drain' was a controversial issue even when I left 50 years ago," he told NZPA in 2000. "But I feel it's highly desirable for a person as part of their scientific education to get training in different companies and institutions to get exposure to different disciplines and ways of tackling a job."

His own career started after he shovelled coal and swept floors at university to be able to study chemistry part-time. He published his first paper in Nature in 1949, graduated from Victoria the following year, and with the ink still drying on the science degree in his suitcase, set off for America on a Fullbright scholarship to study at Wisconsin University for the first of two doctorates.

A further scholarship from Shell NZ enabled him to study silicon hydrides at Cambridge University in England, where he married his fiance from Wisconsin, Marian Mathieu,in 1954. After briefly working at St Andrews University in Scotland, he took the lowly job of an instructor at Pennsylvania University in 1955.

He still worked there 52 years later , after completely changing his speciality to organic chemistry in the 1970s to study polymers -- the start of his Nobel work.

" It did not fit directly into any of the established scientific fields, such as chemistry, physics, electronics, or to the area of organic or inorganic chemistry," he recalled later, describing the initial work as having been in a "maverick" field.

His wife died in 1990, but the couple are survived by their children Heather, Dawn, Duncan and Gail. For the past 15 years, Prof MacDiarmid's partner was Gayle Gentile.

Prof MacDiarmid said that just like beautiful poetry, music and art it was possible to get intellectual enjoyment from beautiful research: 'And if that beautiful research happens to be technologically useful, then that is icing on the cake."

In addition to the MacDiarmid research centre at Victoria University, he was also involved in the Jilin University-Alan G. MacDiarmid Institute, a state-of-the-art nanotechnology research centre that opened in China late in 2001. He practised speaking Chinese while driving.

"When you stop learning, you start dying," Prof MacDiarmid said.

His research on conducting polymers led to about 25 patents -- some of which expired before companies realised billions of dollars could be earned from commercial applications.

"Alan's work was so cutting-edge that the industry was just not ready to exploit it at the time, which is a crying shame," John Caldwell, a partner in a Philadelphia-based intellectual property law firm told the Philadelphia Business Journal in 2002.

But Prof MacDiarmid -- who published over 600 scientific papers -- said that he would take being held in high esteem by the scientific community over money any day.

"Sure, one would never turn down the money, but if it's a matter of degree of importance in my life, money is about a 1 out of 10, and scientific fame is about a 9.5 out of 10," he said.

- NZPA

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