00:01:00[Introduction to the interview]
00:05:00MODY: Let's start from the beginning. What are the experiences that initially
moved you towards chemistry or interested you in materials [engineering]?
MACDIARMID: My interest really developed in chemistry accidentally when I was
about ten years old. Well, I was born in New Zealand and educated in the city of
00:06:00Lower Hutt, which is a suburb of the capital city of Wellington. When I was
about ten years old, I rode my bicycle to the public library in Lower Hutt and
went to the children's section. And I still remember very well that on the
right-hand side doorway, bottom shelf, were the new books. There was one new
book called The Boy Chemist. Today that would be a
completely inappropriate title; it would be The Young Person Chemist instead.
The whole book was devoted to experiments, so I signed it out constantly from
the library for about a year and did most of the experiments in it using common
00:07:00chemicals around the house, or ones that I could purchase easily. But the thing
that really got me interested, and I wish would be used more in education, was
asking questions. The book would describe how to turn water into wine using
acid-base indicators and colored indicators, or how to do invisible writing
which you could then read by developing it with other chemicals. These things
intrigued me, and left questions in my mind.
I'm very interested in education also, and I feel that we could combine that
with the questioning part--for example we could introduce the general population
00:08:00to cartoon shows for a better scientific immersion. You could have Bugs Bunny
holding, say, three balloons. One is red, one is green, and one is yellow. And
Bugs Bunny lets one that is filled with air go, and it just sort of floats
around and then slowly sinks. Then he lets another one, say the blue one which
is filled with carbon dioxide or some heavy gas, go--and zoom, it sinks straight
down to the floor. Finally let's have the yellow one, which is filled with
helium, zooming upwards. So the question is, is it the color of the balloon that
decides whether it hovers around or sinks to the ground? Or is it not?
Simple questions such as this can get the young people thinking. So I quite
00:09:00often feel that it is good to ask questions and not necessarily give the
answers, but to give the leads where answers may be found. What I find is that
if I've looked at a videotape movie, say a murder mystery, and for some reason
or the other I never see the end, then that is the movie that my mind keeps
coming back to. But if I see it from the very beginning to the very end, then
it's a closed story in my mind, and I sort of forget it. I feel we really need
to start in getting the kids to wonder, which was what got me going.
MODY: Was there anything else that drew you to chemistry? What did your family
00:10:00think of these experiments you did?
MACDIARMID: Well, my basic interest was there. My father [Archibald MacDiarmid]
was trained as an engineer. On one occasion we were up in the loft pulling out
some of his old books, and I found a book on chemistry which was probably
written in the late 1880s. I liked the pictures and the drawings in it, so I
would spend hours turning over the pages and not understanding a damned thing.
But it got me interested in this whole area called chemistry.
Then during World War II, with New Zealand being a little out-of-the-way country
in the bottom of the Pacific [Ocean], there was a great shortage of printing
00:11:00paper for cameras. And so I got some old books somewhere to learn how to make
printing paper. I found out how to separate albumen from egg whites to make
printing paper that printed up on some silver chloride that I made.
MODY: Did you sell those or did you use them yourself?
MACDIARMID: No, that was just to see if I could do it or not. But in order to
get the silver nitrate for making these photograph plates, somebody gave me a
part of a cutout of an old bob watch which was made from silver. Since my house
00:12:00was about a three-minute walk from the primary school, one lunch time I went
back home and dissolved up some of the silver watch in nitrate acid, which went
fine. Then I went back to school and I found my fingers were starting to turn a
dark black color, and I thought, "Gee, I've got some terrible disease." As you
probably know, if you spill silver nitrate on your skin, it reacts with the
sodium chloride in your sweat and precipitates silver chloride. Since silver
chloride is photoactive, it turns your skin dark black. So I remember at
intermission in the afternoon I went up to our teacher and said, "Sir, I have
something very wrong with me." And he asked, "What have you been doing?" To
00:13:00which I replied, "I went home at lunchtime and dissolved some silver in some
nitrate acid." He laughed and told me that I obviously spilled some silver
nitrate on my fingers, and that made it black. And that it would all wear off. [laughter]
A lot of these little interesting things involving chemistry got me intrigued.
This was in the middle of the big depression and my father, an engineer, was out
of work for about four years, with four children in the family. He was in his
fifties when I was born, so when I was sixteen he retired. He retired to the
northern subtropical part of New Zealand, and I spent three years at high
00:14:00school, which was considerably shorter than most people. During that time I
delivered newspapers to collect money. Before that, at grade school, I would
deliver milk on a bicycle.
So anyway, we were always pretty poor as a family with five kids, with my father
being out of work. I then accepted a job as lab boy in the chemistry department
at Victoria University at Wellington. In those days it was just the University
of New Zealand which is a little office building on a street in Wellington. And
00:15:00that was divided up into six university colleges, both in Wellington and other
cities, and a couple of agricultural colleges. So the actual degree that we got
was a degree from the University of New Zealand, through one of the colleges.
MODY: That's based on the model of the University of London?
MACDIARMID: Yes, exactly. A different examiner at one of the colleges would set
the exam every year; and they were given on the same day at the same time in
each of the major cities. Anyway, I accepted a job there as lab boy, which also
doubled as a janitor. That involved cleaning out all of the dirty glassware that
00:16:00was left over by students, throwing wet sawdust down on the floor, and sweeping
that up with a broom so the wet sawdust caught the dust. I did that at this old,
wooden building, and then I was also a janitor at a student dormitory where I
stayed at later. So I was always a part-time student.
MODY: Did you seek out the job in the chemistry department because of your
interest in chemistry?
MACDIARMID: Yes. That was probably the case. I knew my father was going to
retire, but he sort of stayed on his job until it came to the end of the
semester. After that I was looking for where I might be able to get some work.
00:17:00So I felt maybe something with the university would be good if I could get in.
So looking at the newspaper I saw the advertisement for lab boy and janitor at
the chemistry department of Victoria University colleges that night. It had a
very, very small salary. It was actually thirty shillings a week. [laughter]
That was only enough to pay for my living expenses, and I had to get financial
help from my parents. But then I am rather pleased to say that I left high
school and started the university when I was sixteen years old. I only had three
years of high school--usually people had at least one extra year, if not two, in
00:18:00some form. And the universities were essentially free if you passed the
university entrance exam, which I did. From the age of seventeen onward I have
supported myself financially with scholarships or fellowships, although I've
borrowed money plenty of times and then returned it.
MODY: How many other students were part-time? How many others were supporting
themselves like you? Was it quite unusual at the university?
MACDIARMID: Very unusual. The university was very small, with a total student
00:19:00population of I think 1,200 students in all departments. The chemistry
department had one professor and one senior lecturer. The senior lecturer, Mr.
[A. D.] Monro, had never been out of New Zealand, and the professor was a New
Zealander who had gotten his degree from England. So this was unusual being
part-time, doing janitorial work, working in the chemistry department, and in
the student hostel. The janitorial work involved a lot, there was stoking up the
00:20:00central heating late at night, and also putting in coke into the big ovens in
the kitchen. I'd go out to a party or a dance, and come back and change out of
my fine clothing into hobo clothing to sift through the coke. And I remember one
Saturday night I must have been at a good party, and I forgot about lighting the
ovens and cooking things in the kitchen with the coke and, of course, by Sunday
morning breakfast time, everything was out. So the whole dormitory had no food
for breakfast. [laughter]
MODY: So did being part-time mean you stretched out your career at college then?
MACDIARMID: Well, most people usually do it in three years. I did the Bachelor's
00:21:00degree so I did it in four. And then stayed on and did my Master's degree for a
two-year period rather than a one-year period. So everything was sort of slowed
down a bit because of being part-time all the way through. But I learned so much.
As I always admit, I learned so much from being a lab boy and the lecture
demonstrator. I prepared chemical samples and set up apparatuses for Mr. Monro
in the prep room behind the freshman chemistry lecture room. And I remember on
00:22:00one occasion, at 9:00 am, just before Mr. Monro was going to give his lecture, I
was tying something up and the bloody apparatus broke. Mr. Monro walked into the
lecture room and, he used to always call me Mac, he said, "Mac, okay, where's
the apparatus?" I told him, "I'm sorry sir, it broke." There was a deathly
silence, and then he said, "It never breaks." To which I replied, "I'm sorry, I
broke it." And then he just went straight into the lecture. [laughter] I've
always remembered--it never breaks. But I learned a huge amount from him.
MODY: In terms of informal skills with materials or the formal language of
chemistry as well?
MACDIARMID: There were two things. This was after I had been there for two or
00:23:00three years, and as a demonstrator I had to prepare apparatuses for lecture
demonstrations. This means I had to perfect my manual skills in setting up
apparatuses--more so than one would just taking regular lab classes, which of
course I had to take as well. However, as a student, my lab classes were at
night because I was working during the day. So this helped with the manual
skills very considerably.
And also, Monro helped me develop as a person. He asked, "Mac, don't you ever
00:24:00wonder why I'm asking you to do this, or telling you to do that?" And I said,
"I'm assuming, sir, that if you tell me to do it, then it is correct." He then
told me to never assume anything he says is correct. So he helped me overcome my
fear, awe, and trembling of this whole doctoral sort of thing, which was very helpful.
As a matter of fact, one of the samples that he got me to prepare for freshman
chemistry was a sulfur nitride which formed lovely orange crystals. And so he
chose this as a lecture demonstration, to show inorganic things are quite often
highly colored. And said when I came to do my Master's work, I asked him if I
00:25:00might do it on the sulfur nitride, which I'd been working with. And he said,
"Okay, if you'd like to, do it under my supervision." And then I got involved
with my Master's thesis and changing colors with chlorine to greens, and purples
and whatnot. And then that led to my getting involved in this lab here on these
polysulfur golden crystals.
Later on in my career at Penn [University of Pennsylvania], I remember having
discussions with Professor Alan [J.] Heeger in the physics department, and he
said that Mort [Mortimer M.] Labes at Temple University had come up with some
interesting things about a sulfur nitrogen compound. And I said, "Oh yes, I used
to work on that for my Master's degree in New Zealand." He perked up his ears
and says "Oh!", but I told him that was years, and years, and years ago. Then he
00:26:00asked me if I could make some, and I said no. Anyway, it was a long discussion.
We finally made the crystals, and that then developed my interest in interacting
with people outside chemistry, such as Alan Heeger in physics, who is one of the
three of us that got the Nobel Prize. [Alan J. Heeger, Alan G. MacDiarmid, and
Hideki Shirakawa won the 2000 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery and
development of conductive polymers.] So it actually goes back to my acting as a
lab boy and then being promoted to demonstrator, to get things ready for some
chemistry show-and-tell experiments.
MODY: What classes were you taking in other fields? Were you concentrating
almost exclusively on chemistry or were you interested in other fields as well?
00:27:00MACDIARMID: No. Chemistry was a very narrow sort of curriculum. Normally one
would take three courses every semester, and I was taking two. The first one was
always chemistry, and then for the second one I'd take the introductory classes
in physics and math--I was lousy at math. The passing grade was fifty at the end
of the year; I had two papers, and the average of those two papers had to be
00:28:00fifty. I often feel that Mr. Monro must have spoken to the people in the math
department because I only got forty-eight on one paper and fifty-two on the
other. So it came down to a passing grade. [laughter] He might actually have
appealed to the math professor and said, "Well, MacDiarmid, he's no
mathematician, but he seems quite good at chemistry, as good as a person may be."
And I remember that here at Penn forty years or so later I had one student from
the Soviet Union. He was all right at the subject, and for personal and
professional reasons, he didn't want to go back to the Soviet Union. So I worked
more strongly in favor of him than I normally would, and helped him to get a
00:29:00green card [Permanent Resident Alien card] to the states. This is embellishing
the truth a bit, but I kept remembering the case of my forty-eight and
fifty-two. So I gave him a glowing report and he got his green card and has now
turned out to be director of research at a small company in California. So a
little touch of human understanding touched me, I never knew whether my math
score had been rigged, but there's always been that doubt in my mind that it
00:30:00could have been. So when I came to this particular individual, I thought, "Well
look, life is more than just experiments. This is a good, honest, hardworking
guy, so let me give him every benefit of the doubt." Later on I said to my wife
that for the first time in my life, I think I've done something for which
professionally I could be criticized, but I feel right about it inside.
MODY: What kinds of mentorship were your family, Monro, and other teachers
giving you about a career? What did you see yourself doing?
00:31:00MACDIARMID: Well, all of my vacations from high school I'd spend up in the
northern part of New Zealand on citrus orchards with my brothers and sisters,
and then my father retired. So with New Zealand being a farming country, I would
have loved being a fruit farmer if I hadn't gone to the university. I was very
interested in fertilizer and rainfall, and particularly in the grafting of
trees. In other words, you could cut off a part of an apple tree and then graft
00:32:00it onto a branch of a peach tree, then you could have a tree producing apples
and peaches on different branches. This intrigued me very much, but because of
my ongoing interest in chemistry and having always done well in chemistry in
high school, my science teachers said, "MacDiarmid, none of your siblings has
ever gone to a university, but you should go." I thought I will try it once and
see if I can get in.
And then after I got my Bachelor's and Master's degree as a part-time student, I
00:33:00wanted to go to England. England was always called "home," even though you were
born in New Zealand. When asked about what you are going to do after finishing
with university, it's common to hear, "Oh, I'm saving up to go home." Also,
there were ships that sailed to England called "home boats." So I applied for an
1851 Science Exhibition Scholarship to England but did not get
it. After that I remember mentioning, while walking
across a football field from the dormitory, to one of my friends that I was very
disappointed. He says, "Well, there's this new sort of scholarship that's just
come out from America, it's called the Fulbright Scholarship. Why don't you
apply for it?" I told him that, "Look, I don't like anything American. I don't
like American food. I don't like American music. I don't like American movies. I
don't like anything about America. Nothing at all." And then he said, "Well, why
00:34:00not just call the American Embassy and ask them to send you an application form?
You've been working really hard for six years now on your education, it can't do
any harm." But I still thought that I'd kind of like to go to England, not America.
Anyway, I called and they sent me an application form. Upon finally filling it
in, I got a telephone call that said, "This is the consul at the American
Embassy on Capitol Hill and I've got some good news for you in regards to the
Fulbright Scholarship. When can you come down to discuss this?"
When I got down there, it was sort of assumed that I was going to accept it. The
consul asked me where I wanted to go to university and what I thought of all of
00:35:00this. Anyway, I had no idea at all so he suggested the University of Wisconsin
might be a good place.
MODY: Why did he suggest Wisconsin?
MACDIARMID: Because he took out a map of the United States and pointed!
[laughter] Actually, he asked what branch of chemistry I was interested in. I
told him I was interested in inorganic chemistry and he said, "Well, I've
checked out some schools' reputations, what about doing something with going
there [University of Wisconsin]?" I told him that I'm sure the school is very
nice, but I wasn't that interested in going. Finally he convinced me by saying
that it is only for two semesters.
00:36:00This was in the days before airplane travel was common. I packed two suitcases
knowing full well that I'd be back in New Zealand after two semesters, so I left
all the rest of my stuff in my clothes drawers--but the next time we returned
was twelve years later! My clothes drawers had already been passed around many
times. [laughter] It took about three weeks then to go from New Zealand to
Wisconsin. These were the early days before the scholarship caught on--so I
think there were two Fulbright students from New Zealand and four from
00:37:00Australia, and they sent us all first class by boat. First it swept down
Australia to Wellington, then it headed up to Fiji and then from Fiji to Hawaii,
and finally from Hawaii to Vancouver. And at Vancouver we caught a train that
took a couple of days to cross Canada to Winnipeg and then down from Winnipeg to
So this all sort of happened not totally by accident, but it definitely was not
planned. My plan was to go to England, which I eventually got to later in my career.
MODY: And what did you find when you got to Wisconsin? Did you know at all what
00:38:00to expect, or who you wanted to work with?
MACDIARMID: I really did not know who I wanted to work with. But I do remember
during the first six weeks of class, which involved either chemistry or physical
chemistry, I had failed every exam miserably. [laughter] I started in September,
and I remember it was gloomy and very cold. I walked around the block of the
chemistry department about six times and thought, "Aaah, damn it, what is
happening here? I had always done fairly well, and I have worked my butt off
here." But I just couldn't understand what was wrong. Then it is very
interesting, because it occurred to me all of a sudden. In New Zealand the
00:39:00educational system is modeled after the University of London--the examiner
assumes when he starts grading or writing a paper that you've got zero points,
and you are given points for everything you get right.
MODY: As opposed to the U.S. [United States] system.
MACDIARMID: Right, in the American system, which I've now used for fifty years,
you assume the student has one-hundred percent and you take off points for
everything that he gets wrong or leaves out. That's the system I still use
today, but back to the reason I was doing poorly. I was studying in the same way
in Wisconsin as I had been in New Zealand. There's a part of me that thought, "I
don't understand this part, so to hell with that." I'll do a lot of reading
which was not on the assignment, but that I find more interesting. And of course
00:40:00I got no credit at all for the outside reading, while a lot was taken off for
everything that I goofed on in the lectures. So then I changed my method of
studying and things went very much better.
It's an interesting difference between the North American system of education
and the continental British system. I do not know yet which is better, because
with the American system you can be assured that, knowing the university that
the person comes from, he will know a little about everything but not too much
about anything. Whereas in the British system, the initiative and the emphasis
00:41:00on outside reading is stressed more, but the final product can be much spottier.
You can know a lot about certain areas, but some areas which may be very
important you would know very little about. I've been using the American system
myself for fifty years, and I am still at a loss to know which the better system is.
MODY: Right, it's like Sherlock Holmes not knowing that the earth goes around
the sun. Well, were there mechanisms at Wisconsin to help you figure out those
cultural differences? You talked in your Nobel autobiography about the
International Club, did that help?
MACDIARMID: Well, naturally I was very interested in foreign students, and I
00:42:00became the president of the International Club, which was the largest student
organization on campus. And as president, I had an automatic position on the
student board that ran the student union. So I learned then a lot about Robert's
Rules of Order. [laughter] You had to conduct the
meetings according to Robert's Rule of Order, both when being a member of the
student union and acting in my capacity as president of the International Club.
00:43:00So I found this very, very interesting indeed.
Then the chemistry department apparently nominated me for becoming a Knapp
fellow, which was named after an alumnus of the university. This happened right
when the then current governor moved to another mansion, and his former
residence was right on the shores of Lake Mendota. Since the University of
Wisconsin is on the shores of Lake Mendota, we had the opportunity of studying
at the old mansion. There were six of us from different disciplines, so we were
given three beautiful rooms overlooking the lake. The mansion was renamed the
00:44:00Knapp Center, and we were called the Knapp Scholars. Also, when special visiting
scholars came to the university, we got to quietly spend an evening chatting
with them. Then my parents sent me information about a new Shell Oil Company
fellowship that was being offered in New Zealand, so I applied for that when I
was at Wisconsin because I had always wanted to get to England. And I was able
to get one of the scholarships to go to Cambridge, [England].
But one of the interesting things about the Cambridge fellowship was that it was
00:45:00for a single male, yet my girlfriend [Marian Mathieu] and I got married at least
two or three months before the fellowship was due to finish.
MODY: Well, let me ask you about your work at Wisconsin. At the end of those two
semesters on the Fulbright [Scholarship], were you ready to begin working with
MACDIARMID: After the Fulbright, I signed up with Norris [F.] Hall who was then
00:46:00carrying out research on radioactive tracer work. He helped me apply, as I
recall, for a year on the University of Wisconsin research scholarship, when it
was funded by the research foundation at Wisconsin. I helped in finding some key
patents in something to do with the dairy industry, and some sort of
pasteurization process. So when the Fulbright Scholarship phased out, I was
eased into one of these research assistantships, which was great. And then of
course, when I came to England I had the Shell Fellowship, so one thing sort of
00:47:00leads into the other very nicely.
MODY: How did you pick what you wanted to work on at Wisconsin? You knew you
wanted to do something inorganic?
MACDIARMID: Yes. I knew that because I had done my Master's degree in New
Zealand on inorganic stuff. And Norris Hall, who actually worked for Madame
[Marie] Curie in France for a short time, was working on radioactivity. This was
at a time, after the war, when radioactivity was dark and mysterious. Scientists
want to know how one can use this to find out what ions, atoms, or groups were
00:48:00exchanging with each other. I worked on radioactive cyanide groups, making use
of this strange thing called radioactivity, which was very intriguing.
MODY: And some of the work was on Carbon-14 [C-14], right?
MACDIARMID: Yes. This was completely using Carbon-14, initially.
MODY: And this would have been at about the same time that [Willard F.] Libby in
Chicago, [Illinois] is beginning to do radiocarbon dating?
MACDIARMID: Yes. On occasions I had been to various meeting when Libby was
there, I guess he was doing his funded work on heavy water. He wanted to know
how much of the deuterium being produced, i.e. when D2O is produced instead of
00:49:00H2O, was due to atom bomb testing? So I listened to him giving a lecture when he
asked, "What is the best way of getting water of absolutely definite known date
going back decades?" And then somebody suggested wine. So they bought, as
chemical supplies, certain French vintage wine which apparently had a lot of
trouble getting through U.S. customs. [laughter] And then for mass spec
[spectroscopy] work they only needed a fraction of a cubic centimeter. So you
take out a teaspoon full of rare vintage wine and what do you do with the
00:50:00leftovers? You waste it doing that! [laughter] So that was very much in the
MODY: And was your work partly funded by the Atomic Energy Commission?
MACDIARMID: This was actually funded by a research alumni organization, the WARF
[Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation].
MODY: Oh, the WARF.
MACDIARMID: You're familiar with the term?
MODY: Yes, it is well-known in the history of science as one of the first
commercial ventures by a university.
MACDIARMID: That's right, the Wisconsin Research Alumni Foundation. It is
interesting that you're familiar with that.
MODY: Yes, it was quite innovative in its day.
MACDIARMID: So I guess this was based mainly on these patents that were obtained
at the University of Wisconsin where they were given to the alumni founders. It
is a fantastic idea.
00:51:00MODY: So your work on Carbon-14 was more on [radioactive] tracers?
MODY: Were they tracers for medical purposes or something else?
MACDIARMID: Well, that was what we were actually doing. You could not buy
cyanide ion which was C-14 in CN. All you could buy was calcium or sodium
calcium carbonate, the carbon was C-14.
MODY: Where would you buy these chemicals from?
MACDIARMID: I forget where, but it was probably from Oak Ridge or some other
source. Starting with calcium carbonate, I had to try to find out how to convert
the carbon from calcium carbonate to cyanide. I found a way to do this by using
00:52:00sodium azide which is what exploded when heated. And I perfected the method for
converting the carbon in the calcium carbonate to the carbon in the cyanide ion
sodium with a positive ion, and you'd get some radioactive calcium carbonate if
you do that. And then actually we take the complex cyanide which was potassium
cyanide aqueous solution and then mix it with sodium cyanide aqueous solution to
see under what conditions of heat or light that some of the radioactive cyanide
would finish up in the potassium cyanide.
MODY: I see.
00:53:00MACDIARMID: And then from that one can get the rate of exchange and postulate
what might be happening.
MODY: So you were using it to characterize reaction dynamics?
MACDIARMID: Yes. That is right.
00:54:00[There is audio content in this section that is not transcribed.]
00:56:00MODY: One more question about Wisconsin and your early career. Was there a real
sense of excitement and of doing something new in working on radioactive
materials in that era? Was there a sense that you were building new institutions?
MACDIARMID: Yes, there was a lot of input of older students coming from World
War II. And of course, atom bombs and atomic energy had been stressed very much
in the latter parts of World War II. So anything that had radioactivity in it
00:57:00was very interesting. But you know, I would say there's no greater emphasis on
that than if I were to take courses in the human genome today. It was sort of
interesting, but everybody goes to his own area of interest.
00:58:00[There is audio content in this section that is not transcribed.]
01:00:00MODY: This is interesting. Can you tell me a little more about the Shell
scholarship? Was Shell a major company? Was their New Zealand unit a major
MACDIARMID: No. The Shell Company was really about the same size as any other
company. But I guess their goal was to create goodwill through public relations.
I know there were Shell Company Fellows from different parts of the British
Commonwealth. And when we arrived in England, the Shell Company representatives
from Holland [the Netherlands] invited us all over and took us on a guided bus
trip. We stayed at the best of hotels and dined at the best of restaurants, and
01:01:00got to see various parts of Holland. So it was very much a public relations
aspect I think, to show the Shell Company was not just a place where you
generally buy gasoline--it was real people. Also, they brought the Shell Company
Fellows from different parts of the world together and we got to meet, and have
a very active program. We would have get-togethers in London every so often, and
they were not just five-minute chats.
MODY: Right. Did you still have this feeling that going to the U.K. [United
Kingdom] was going home in some sense?
01:02:00MACDIARMID: Oh, no. I left Wisconsin in December, caught a ship across the
Atlantic and spent Christmas day in the middle of the Atlantic. And when I
walked into the chemistry lab in Cambridge my heart fell. I thought,
"MacDiarmid, you have come to the wrong place." The windows were so old and had
so much dust on them you couldn't see through it. It was cold, and we never
received our tea until morning tea time at 10:30 am, and I actually lamented
that to some post-docs. When we went out to lunch, we could never discuss
research--that was considered to be unprofessional. When it was lunchtime, it
01:03:00was lunchtime. You discussed politics, music, or art. You can discuss anything,
but not problems you're having with research.
And then it really hit me that the creativity of a university is in not the
buildings. Of course, I knew that there were great people at Cambridge, so it is
the people inside the buildings. You can have beautiful buildings, but if you do
not have good people to put inside, you have absolutely nothing. One would like
to have enough money to have beautiful buildings, and also excellent people to
01:04:00put in the buildings. Certainly if you have excellent buildings, it will help to
attract some people. But if you only have a limited amount of money, do you put
it in the people, or do you put it in the buildings? So my feeling is since none
of us ever have enough money for both the institution and people, put the money
into people. People are creative, buildings are not.
So that was what I thought about Cambridge: it had horrible, dirty, old,
decrepit, and cold buildings, but the people were outstanding. They attracted
outstanding people from various parts of the world. There are some post-docs,
and people from within England too.
01:05:00MODY: Who were the people that were particularly inspiring or encouraging to you?
MACDIARMID: One of them is Evelyn Ebsworth. He was a graduate student about two
years ahead of me, and we had a little two-person lab. But a member of the
parliament in our district had recently died, so he was running for parliament
at the same time as he was doing his graduate work. Fortunately for science, he
lost the election. [laughter] But then he rose to be [vice] chancellor of Durham
University. And that position, of course, is almost like a president or the head
of the university. All of the people that I knew seemed to rise in their
01:06:00countries. There's one person from India that rose to be a chancellor in
Bangalore, India. And so I have kept in contact with some people a little bit
during the fifty years, but some seem to have kicked the bucket. And most of
them have retired except stupid MacDiarmid. [laughter]
MODY: What kinds of characterization equipment were you using then?
MACDIARMID: We were just using a beta counter or something similar, it was very
unsophisticated. We used something simple to just collect a little round circle
of silver cyanide ion, I think, from the solution, and then used the counter to
get a count from the beta radiation given off. And that was the only thing. It
wasn't until I went to Cambridge University that I had ever really heard of
doing an infrared spectrum. And you're a chemical scientist I presume?
MODY: I have an undergrad degree in materials science.
MACDIARMID: Right, it was obvious from your response, saying the things you did.
I remember I was working with [Harry J.] Emeleus at Cambridge on silicon
compounds. I said to him, "would it be okay sir, if I find the infrared spectrum
on this?" Neither he nor any of his students had ever done infrared, so he said,
"don't waste too much time on it." [laughter] The chemistry department at
Cambridge had an infrared spectrometer, there was certainly one in the
department, and maybe it was the only one in the whole university. So I got
these funny specs [spectrums], and I didn't know what they meant. I said, "All
right, this is my thesis, seriously, I can't waste a lot of time interpreting
it. The important thing is to get the basic procurements of the compound, and
the element of that knowledge, to the professor."
So I introduced Emeleus' group, and the whole inorganic division, to the whole
frontier of the infrared spectroscopy. Not that I necessarily knew anything
about the whole thing. [laughter]
MODY: So how did you choose a lab to work in and a topic to work on?
MACDIARMID: Well, I chose Emeleus because he was the head of the department, and
he had written a textbook, Emeleus and [John S.] Anderson, that I used back in
New Zealand for my post-graduate work. I still have a
copy in my office, and I remember I sat down with him and he asked, "Well, where
would you like to work?" I replied, "I've been working on radiochemistry at
01:07:00Wisconsin, and I would like to work with Dr. Merrick," who was a lecturer at
01:08:00Cambridge. And Emeleus--he called everyone laddie--said "Laddie, you're too
young to specialize, and you might want to get into a completely different
area." He said that for example, the area that he was interested in was silicon
hydrides, because he had done post-doctoral work with Alfred Stock at Karlsruhe
University, and Alfred Stock was the person who had been developing glass vacuum lines.
So he said, "You know, you're too young to specialize. You want to try something
different," so he talked me into using glass vacuum lines and equipments.
Emeleus had done his post-doc work for Stock, they developed this whole concept.
Alfred Stock had done all of his work working with soda glass, a soft glass,
which is very difficult to work with. So Emeleus, the head of the chemistry
department at Cambridge, built my vacuum system because the technician of the
glassware at Cambridge only worked with Pyrex and did not know how to work with
01:09:00soda glass. So Emeleus had learned [from Stock] and in turn taught us how to
blow vacuum lines with soda glass. He also said, "Laddie, when you leave
Cambridge, you can certainly work with Pyrex and you'll probably find it much
simpler." So when I came to Penn, we had no glassware and I built my first
vacuum line myself with hand torch and blowing into Pyrex glass.
I remember there was one very hot summer and there was no air conditioning in
this old chemistry building here at Penn. So I was in the lab dressed in a pair
01:10:00of khaki shorts and using the blow torch--you held the rubber tubing in your
mouth so you can blow into the glass. And John [G.] Miller, a senior faculty of
the chemistry department who is rather pompous but a very sedate person, saw me
up there sort of sweating bloody hell in a pair of shorts and blowing glass. He
said to me, "Alan, is everything going okay?" And I said, "Yes, I think so.
Thank you." Then he said, "Look, before you go today why don't you stop in and
see me?" So I went to see him after I had gotten dressed. And of course, John
goes, "You know, I'm not sure whether it's quite right for a member of the
01:11:00faculty at Penn to be here in shorts and sneakers, and working in the lab. I
understand why you would do this, but you know, it's not sort of the usual thing
that's done." So he was very, very tactful in explaining this to me, an
uncultured guy, a young person from the colonies. [laughter]
One more thing about the States; I feel that the United States is a country of
dog-eat-dog and you have to become highly competitive. If you are hard working,
you've got a little bit of gray matter up there, then the possibilities are
great. Whereas in certainly more European countries, you can be as smart as you
like, but your accent sort of acts as a glass ceiling in advancement. This is
what happened to me very much at Cambridge and when I was living in college. In
these dormitories, each student would have their own jip--their own manservant.
Mine would wake me up every morning, he'd come in and open the curtains and say,
"Oh, it's a very nice day out there. Today's is going to be a great day." He'd
clean my shoes and wash the coffee cups. We would always eat dinner in the hall
of the college, and the sons of the jips were the junior waiters of the students
at the table every meal--breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
So one young guy I was chatting with found out I was from New Zealand, and I
said, "Oh, some day when you're through with finishing here in the hall, why
don't you come up to my room and have a cup of coffee? I've got some newspapers
and things from New Zealand." He says, "Oh, I couldn't. I could not come to your
room, sir." And I asked him why not when he was through with cleaning? But he
said, "I cannot come up to your room to have coffee with you. I could not come
to a room, sir." So I said, "Oh, okay. I'll bring you some newspapers and give
them to you for next time." Because in this social strata if he were found
having coffee with a young gentleman up in his room, he would be stepping out of
his social class and be ostracized by his peer group. And, as young gentlemen,
we were reminded that we should or should not do certain things. We were not
students, women students were young ladies, and men students were young
gentlemen. And we all had to wear gowns after sunset. One of the interesting
things was that you must not show ungentlemanly behavior when you are wearing
your gown. And two ungentlemanly behaviors in particular--one was to smoke a
cigarette while you had your gown on. The other was to walk down the street
holding the hands of a young lady. Things have changed by now! [laughter]
But this is one of the things about the United States that I found is great, in
speaking about the sciences, is that pure ability matters the most. It is very
much more so than other countries where the way you speak immediately indicate
who you are. For example, when you speak English, back in New Zealand and
England, depending on the accent with which you speak it shows whether you went
to a socially snobbish school or not.
MODY: A snobbish school as in a prestigious university?
MACDIARMID: By school I mean grade school, high school and university. And I
remember at Cambridge after my first two or three days there, I was at the
railway station and two students got off the train and one said, "By Jove, it is
jolly good to see you, old man. How is your mater and your pater?" I thought
that he was just being funny talking about their mater and their pater, but they
were being absolutely stoic. I think the U.S. is great in that aspect. [laughter]
MODY: Tell me some more about the silicon hydrate work at Cambridge then. What
were you looking for? What were you making?
MACDIARMID: Well, we were actually looking--really I think it is fun to this
day, I'll give you that--but just as one has methyl-m group [with carbon and
01:12:00hydrogen], then you can have the SiH3 hybrid. And then you can have all sorts of
metal compounds and silane compounds. And so you can have CH3X for halites, and
SiH3X, and then you also have ethyl, C2H5 compounds. You have H3CH2, and these
can be ethers or halites or cyanides or--and then I was the first person to make
any of the silicon analogs of them--of ethyl compounds.
¶And it was sort of fun. In group four of the periodic table you have carbon,
01:13:00silicon, germanium, tin, and lead. So before I would write any paper or start
any lecture I would--and this is a joke here--I would say that "since silicon
lies immediately below carbon in the periodic table, and since so much is known
about carbon, it would be interesting to see how silicon analogs of carbon
compounds are similar to or different from carbon," and then to try to explain
I remember on one occasion there was an Academy of [Natural] Sciences meeting
down in Philadelphia, [Pennsylvania], and I was giving a speech after lunch. My
entire group was attending, and they were sitting in the front two rows. When I
said "since silicon falls immediately below carbon on the periodic table . . ."
01:14:00they all started applauding. Afterwards my group gave me a fake award that said
"Since silicon lies immediately below carbon in the periodic table." I never
used that phrase a lot after that. [laughter]
01:15:00One of the interesting things was to decide how, or to what extent, the empty 3d
orbitals in silicon--which could form pi bonds with oxygen, for example--were
01:16:00important in determining differences between carbon and silicon chemistry. But
it was one of these new areas, like genome studies, and certainly people knew it
was at the cutting edge.
MODY: Were there some of the characteristics of a new field? For example, new
kinds of conferences, new sources of funding, new textbooks, and things like that?
MACDIARMID: No, there was no real special emphasis. The one special emphasis I
found later when I came to Penn was the Russian satellite. That was a very
important emphasis for us. There was such a scare for us with having the Russian
Sputniks the size of grapefruits going around the world. I had a contract from
the Office of Naval Research [ONR] and the Army. Research money was relatively
easy to come by due to the enormous shock to the United States of having a
satellite from Russia going around high above us. We were really spoiled in
those days when research money was much easier to get. I feel sorry for the
young researchers and junior faculty of today, because it was relatively easy in
my day, even as an assistant professor, to get research grants. It is much
MODY: Even though the military was interested, this research must have had just
a very basic orientation in terms of developing these carbon analogs and finding
out about how the orbital structure affected molecules, is that right?
MACDIARMID: That is right. It really is just straight-forward, although
difficult, synthesis. It was difficult because most of the substances were
01:17:00spontaneously explosive and flammable in the air. As it turned out, a year ago
doctors diagnosed me from suffering from benzene poisoning that I got when I was
a graduate student back in New Zealand. Those were the days where if you had
grease on your hands, you'd go wash it with benzene to get it off. Apparently
01:18:00the benzene goes for the bone marrow, which affects the production of red
hemoglobin, white cells, and platelets. Now I have to get a blood transfusion
every week or so from the hospital.
MODY: Do you have any stories about it being a more sort of free-wheeling time
in the lab in general; something similar to blowing your own glass or washing
your hands with benzene?
MACDIARMID: You mean in New Zealand?
MODY: No. Just in general, before the environmental health and safety offices
and their rules.
MACDIARMID: The only thing interesting that I can remember happened at Cambridge
01:19:00University. There was some work going on with the fluorine industry and research
on fluorocarbons. For people working with fluorine gas, there're special first
aid kits that if you believed that you had gotten a spot of liquid fluorine or
liquid HF [hydrofluoric acid] on your skin, you could immediately inject
yourself with a hypodermic needle. The needle is already loaded with chemical
01:20:00devices that would counteract the poisonous chemicals. And so there was a lot of
emphasis placed on using liquid HF, but not much on anything else--I can't
remember any emphasis on goggles or rubber gloves of any sort at all. Absolutely
none whatsoever. [laughter]
MODY: That must have been really dangerous, since you were probably working with
silane and some other pretty nasty chemicals.
01:21:00MACDIARMID: Yes, we were working with that a lot. Boy, you know the word silane,
don't you? We had to make it ourselves, but then of course, silane is flammable
in air depending on the ratio you had, so it was really dangerous. Back in those
days of Russian satellites and rockets, I got a research contract from the Air
Force on the possibilities of developing rocket fuel using silane and silane
compounds--which was really ridiculous. But we were also looking for borenes and
01:22:00all sorts of possible propellants. For rockets, why not use something like SiH4
with oxygen that can give SiO2 and silicon oxygen bond which is very strong, and
the hydrogen given H2O and the hydrogen oxygen [bond] run very strongly. You'd
work out some rationale here, but any funding that sort of has the possibility
of being rocket fuel was relatively easy to come by.
01:23:00[Material in the audio files for this section appears later in the transcript.]
01:28:00MODY: So how long were you in the U.K. then?
MACDIARMID: I was at Cambridge University with a PhD degree for three years, and
then I got a temporary junior lectureship at St. Andrews University in Scotland,
at the Queen's College branch in Dundee [Scotland]. But the weather was so cold
that my wife from Illinois was getting chilblains, which is a poor circulation
problem where you get very itchy skin and blisters. So we searched around to get
some warmer part of the world. I nearly took a job at the University of
01:29:00Witwatersrand in South Africa, but then at the same time I put in an application
for a position here at Penn. Charlie [Charles C.] Price, then the head of the
Penn chemistry department and president of the ACS [American Chemical Society]
on occasion, knew Emeleus. They had gotten together and Emeleus said some nice
things about me. Charlie Price had just come from the University of Notre Dame,
and he hired me sort of sight unseen, which was very unusual. I think it was
01:30:00against the wishes of some of the more senior departmental people. So I came
across from England with a very great salary of $4,800 a year, which of course
was a pittance in part. This was as a demonstrator, and never in the fifty years
since then has anyone been hired by the department as a demonstrator, but that
was the lowest level you could go. [laughter] And then things worked out very nicely.
MODY: Were you determined at this point to stay as an academic?
MACDIARMID: I liked the feeling of academia. One of my good friends at the time
01:31:00from Cambridge, came to the U.S. with an appointment in biochemistry, and taught
at the enormous salary of seventy-two hundred dollars a year. [laughter] This
was enormous for me, but my feeling was that I had never been interested in
money. I've always been interested in having the freedom of being able to do
what I wanted.
MODY: So you started as a demonstrator. What did that entail?
MACDIARMID: That entailed working in lab quite often, it's similar to being a
teaching assistant that I have now. After one semester it was suggested to me
that maybe I could give some lectures in freshman chemistry. So then I would sit
in a freshman chemistry lecture and write out the professor's lecture notes, and
then the following day or two days later I would give the lecture myself to the
overflow of the class. And then I was watched very carefully to make sure that I
taught the right things. Although I remember in my first lecture, I wrote up on
the blackboard S-U-L-P-H-U-R, and some smart-aleck in the class waved his hand
into the air and said, "Oh, excuse me, but I think you've made a mistake." And I
said, "I don't see anything." And he told me that I spelled sulfur wrong.
[laughter] I just filled out for two semesters, after that they had enough fun
of me and let me go ahead.
01:32:00[Material in the audio files for this section appears later in the transcript.]
MODY: What was Penn like in those days? This was 1956? 1955?
MACDIARMID: Yeah. I remember when Emeleus was discussing Penn with me. I asked,
"What sort of university is Penn?" He says, "Well, you know, it's one of the
older Ivy League universities. It's not one of the best ones, but it's quite
good. So as a foothold in the United States I think it was not a bad place to
play." I stayed and all the while I had quite a few offers in the last
forty-nine or fifty years. Really, I think it's a damned good place.
01:36:00MODY: You had overcome your aversion to America by then?
MACDIARMID: Yes, I had an American wife and four American children. And I
started to like American music, American food, and American movies. [laughter]
One other thing, I found about how the United States is different from England
from sharing an office with a person who grew up near and got his PhD degree at
the University of Manchester, a red brick university. He said, "You know Alan,
it's not fair. Because you went to Cambridge, many more opportunities are
01:37:00available to you than to me; assuming that we are similar in color." To me, I
found that one of the nice things about the United States is that although the
old school-ties do exist somewhat in law or business, where you can say, "I'll
call my old friend, he was my roommate in school," in the sciences these ties
don't cut any ice at all.
01:38:00[Material in the audio files for this section appears earlier in the transcript.]
01:43:00MODY: So after a year Penn had taken your measure and decided that you had the
merit to be an associate professor?
MACDIARMID: Right. And then I went up the ladder from assistant professor to
associate professor with tenure, then to a full professor, and then was the
Blanchard Chair of Chemistry. And then the Nobel Prize came along. That came
from work with Alan Heeger in the physics department and Hideki Shirakawa from
Tsukuba University. Shirakawa was originally from the Tokyo Institute of
01:44:00Technology; he went on to Tsukuba University but also spent a year here at Penn.
01:45:00[Material in the audio files for this section appears later in the transcript.]
01:58:00[Material in the audio files for this section appears later in the transcript.]
02:11:00MODY: So shall we talk a bit more about the development of your career? Let's
02:12:00quickly move through the early days up to the collaboration with Heeger. What
was it like building a lab at Penn at the time? Did you have students from the
very beginning? Did you have an empty lab space?
MACDIARMID: Yes, that was a slow business. The main thing was that I was given
one small lab in the other building. I had to blow my own small glass vacuum
02:13:00lines since I had no students or technicians to help. And so when a possible
student would come along and say, "I'm thinking of possibly doing research with
you," I would say, "Okay, here's a vacuum line, you can use that. I'll show you
how to use a vacuum line for silane and silicon hydrides and various things."
MODY: Did you start to attract students immediately?
MACDIARMID: Yes, pretty much immediately. Most of my first students are now
retired, [laughter] but the list grew fairly quickly.
MODY: Pretty soon after you started, Sputnik happened, and this large inflow of
money became available?
02:14:00MACDIARMID: Yes, that happened pretty soon after I started. A lot of government
agencies and other offices were interested in rocket fuels, so they supported
the research a lot financially. They also invested in silicon hydride
derivatives, due to the thought of hydrides as alternative rocket fuels. That
funding changed when we got around to the conducting polymers, which was a
completely and absolutely different area of science. The polymer research was
02:15:00very much due to Ken [Kenneth J.] Wynne who had been with the Office of Naval
Research. He was and is quite an amazing person. At that time I was working on
the polysulfur nitride--the sulfur nitrogen golden polymer. I came back from
visiting the Kyoto University in Japan for three quarters of the year. And I
told him I met this young Japanese person, Hideki Shirakawa, from the Tokyo
Institute of Technology, and he showed me some silvery polymer which is called
02:16:00polyacetylene. I really wasn't sure what that was, but I planned to find out. To
do that I asked if there was any chance that Ken could fund another
post-doctoral appointment so I could try to get Shirakawa, who has given up work
on polyacetylene, to work on this. Ken naturally asked me why, and I told him,
"Well, you know, I've never seen this silvery polymer before." He laughed and
asked, "Do you expect me to give you a new grant because it's something that's
silvery? That's ridiculous . . . but why don't you write me a letter about it
02:17:00anyway?" So I wrote him a two page letter. And I thought that would be the end
Later I got a phone call from him and he says, "Alan, I think you're crazy and
I'm crazy, but why don't you write a formal proposal for twenty-one thousand
dollars? You know nothing about organic chemistry, you know nothing about
polymers. And you're asking me to fund something because of its color." I told
him yes, that was basically it. [laughter] He's since retired and is at the
Virginia Commonwealth University.
MODY: Was it easy to kind of get into these channels of defense funding? Were
they seeking you out?
02:18:00MACDIARMID: No. Ken Wynne supported me for about twenty-five years. And the way
he ran his branch of polymer science in the Office of Naval Research was to
create a minimum amount of red tape, and a maximum amount of freedom, and I
think if anyone wants to see how a government-sponsored research organization
should be run, they should see what Ken Wynne did.
MODY: I guess I'm wondering how you originally found those sources of funding,
first with AFOSR [Air Force Office of Scientific Research], and then with ONR.
02:19:00MACDIARMID: Most of this came through giving lectures at various ACS meetings.
For example, I met my contract officer from the Air Force Office of Scientific
Research because I had been giving some lecture on silicon hydride somewhere and
he came up afterwards, gave me his card and said, "I and the AFOSR are
interested in possible high energy fuels, et cetera. Give me a call sometime."
The same thing happened with Ken Wynne when we were talking about polysulfur
nitride, he said, "I'm in the polymer division of Naval Research, and that's
interesting stuff you've got there. Could you give me a call sometime?" So the
02:20:00openings came primarily through giving of lectures on the work, and then people
from the funding agencies who were scouting. One of the reasons they were going
to various meetings was to find likely young people whom they could provide good
support. It can be a win-win situation for both scientist and agency all the way
through, similar to "what's good for you is good for me."
02:21:00[There is audio content in this section that is not transcribed.]
MODY: I want to continue talking about Ken Wynne and the funding a little bit.
When you first started with Ken Wynne, were you a little unusual for the people
he was funding--in not doing organic chemistry?
02:31:00MACDIARMID: Yes, I think so, but let me go back one step. So much of the
technological developments in any country depend on the people in a little
cubicle of a building in some city. They are the ones who decide what research
project should be funded or not funded. Now they knew to say okay in my case,
but those people send your proposal out to various reviewers. These reviewers
can then say, "Yes, fund," Or, "No, don't fund." But who selects the reviewers?
02:32:00Normally you would select reviewers who have similar feelings to yourself, and
you can say, "Well, this proposal is nonsense, I'll go to Bill James who I know
feels similar to myself on such nonsensical crap as this." Or, "Although this
proposal is screwy, it's completely different than anything else, and John Doe,
he's picked up on some screwy things at times."
Or you can argue that the decision is not up to reviewers, but by a panel of
reviewers that changes every year. Okay, who chooses the panel? Of course, it's
suggested by the former panel members when their time of duty is finished. So it
02:33:00depends, I think, on an individual person who makes the decision as to what to
fund, or to decide on what reviewers a new proposal will be sent to, or who
decides on the composition of the panel.
This is extremely important. I mentioned at one of these lectures that some of
this work I had done by moonlighting--I was being paid to do research on the
sulfur nitrogen area, but instead I was working on polyacetylene. After I
received the Nobel Prize, the BBC [British Broadcasting Company] had a
02:34:00roundtable discussion with all of the Nobel laureates in the year 2000 in the
various fields, and one question asked how each of us got started. People were
giving reasons like pollution and other things, so I thought, "What the hell,
I'm just a person from the colonies. I'll say the bloody truth." [laughter] And
02:35:00I said, "Well, as a matter of fact, most of our seminal work was done illegally,
by moonlighting." Then I explained that moonlighting was doing something on the
side that you're not really going to be paid for. This was in the library at
King Gustav's Palace, where there was not enough room, so the wives and the
family members were watching in a separate room. My wife, Gayl, was sitting
beside Ruth Heeger, Alan Heeger's wife. And Ruth said to Gayl, "Oh! Alan
[Heeger] shook his head and said that's terrible." [laughter] But it turned out
in the next twenty minutes of conversation that most people, if not all, said
that most of their seminal work was done on moonlighting. They were using
personnel and equipment which were being paid for doing research on other
subjects. The main reason was that if you submitted any of these crazy
02:36:00proposals, they will not get funded. [laughter] So you do moonlighting until you
get some results coming along. All that's strictly illegal, but I think this is
one of those things committing people in one way or another to explore crazy ideas.
MODY: So Ken Wynne's strength was that he could grease the wheels for that kind
MACDIARMID: Right. And what is more, he would even go out of his way with
various people he was contracting. On one occasion he came up [from Washington,
D.C.] personally and we visited one person at Rutgers University. Ken said, "I
02:37:00want you two to meet each other. I think maybe you could put some of your
research interests together." As I always said to him, he was like an orchestra
conductor. He had the people he supported, the members of the orchestra, and
then he would try to bring people up and join them together. So I think that is
the ideal sort of support in funding.
MODY: But at the same time did he give you a lot of independence? How often
would you be in touch with him, and then what kinds of direction would he give you?
MACDIARMID: He didn't give us any direction. We would have a contractor's
meeting once every year in Washington [D.C.], and we'd be given twenty minutes
02:38:00to present what we were finding out. And then Ken would have some of his
colleagues from the Office of Naval Research, or from the Army, Navy, or Air
Force, and they would discuss how to tackle the research, and coming up with
MODY: Were those useful for transmitting ideas among the different groups as well?
MACDIARMID: Yes. They were very interesting. I mean, other work was going on,
and I think to myself, "Oh shit, I need time. Everybody else is doing fantastic,
except you." I mean except for me. [laughter]
MODY: What were some of the differences from working with the Air Force and
working with the Navy?
MACDIARMID: They were very similar. I think that Ken, in working with the
02:39:00polymer group, took a minimum amount of control as possible. On the other hand,
you have the [U.S.] Department of Energy [DOE] where their control is fantastic.
They want milestones of where you expect to be every six months. It was run like
the government. [laughter] But they're great people.
02:40:00But I wrote them a letter where about three weeks ago, after a meeting we had in
Boston [Massachusetts]. I said that we need to have more knowledge of what's
going on in the other groups in the hydrogen economy program. So that the left
hand knows what the right hand is doing. I told them that they're not making
full use of the technical manpower that they have. I feel they're taking too
much control and it is being run like machinery, and I talked about stimulating
new ideas and approach.
02:41:00[There is audio content in this section that is not transcribed.]
On the other hand, ONR, AFOSR, and DOD [U.S. Department of Defense] are three
organizations that are run very similarly. The problem at the moment is reducing
02:43:00the budget at a time when we need more money, and they're reducing it by
imposing taxes. The DOE will give us a certain amount of budget and then use the
government taxes of the ledgers to pay for the hurricanes and the Iraqi war. So
interestingly the DOE budget is not taxed, but then there are government taxes
added to other government budgets! That's one of the reasons I'm really finding
other countries very much more advanced in certain ways that I feel are important.
02:44:00MODY: Can you tell me a little about your involvement with the origins of the
Laboratory for Research on the Structure of Matter, which I know both you and
Professor Heeger were involved in?
MACDIARMID: Yes, that started about thirty-eight years ago, and it was a
laboratory for research on the structure of matter. Bob [Robert] Hughes, who was
a senior member of the chemistry department at that time, was an x-ray
crystallographer. I was just a very junior member then, and I thought
"synthesis" would be better, but Bob said the structure was the important thing.
So it was called the laboratory for the structure.
MODY: Being a crystallographer, of course he would think that structure is more
MACDIARMID: Right, so it was called LRSM, Laboratory for Research on the
02:45:00Structure of Matter, although it's more frequently called the "materials science
laboratory." And that was funded first by DARPA [Defense Advanced Research
Projects Agency], then by ARPA [Advanced Research Projects Agency] and now by
the NSF [National Science Foundation]. However, the main method of operation
remained the same--there's a director, an executive committee, essential
facilities and seed programs, then more specifically projected programs.
02:46:00In general, I think the concept is great. Individual faculty members put in
joint proposals on work which could not be easily done alone, but can be done by
a collaborative approach. It follows the concept of "one plus one makes more
than two." They also have a seed program that outreaches for new concepts, by an
individual or a group of researchers, for a one-year period, to just sort of see
if something is feasible.
Finally, there's a very strong outreach program, we had a very active one in
02:47:00Puerto Rico in particular. It is for underprivileged people, African Americans,
women, and people of Spanish descent, et cetera. The outreach program is a very
important aspect. I think the overall program is great.
MODY: Let's talk about your work with Alan Heeger in the physics department.
What organizations at Penn made that interdisciplinary research possible?
MACDIARMID: Well, it started off as industry related. And just from memory, I
think it started about thirty-eight years ago. Bob Hughes and some others had
02:48:00heard that there could be money available for a laboratory doing research on
materials science. Of course, forty years ago "materials science" was a
buzzword, just as "nano-science" became a sexy word, and now "energy" is
becoming a buzzword too. So I think they went to DARPA and said, "Well tell us
more about the funding." They applied and the money came through. The university
was very happy to be a part of that program.
02:49:00MODY: What made things click with you and Heeger when you heard each other's presentations?
MACDIARMID: Well, we were working on silicon compounds at that time, some of
which had an overall spherical symmetry. So I said to Alan at the coffee break,
"We have these things, and apparently one was conducting and spherical." He
said, "No, no, no, you don't want spherical things being conducting. And you
want linear and two dimensional, not three dimensional--well, maybe we'll talk
about it sometime." The coffee break was one of those practice sessions that all
of us loathed. [laughter] We thought it was terrible, but it turned out to be
02:50:00extremely important, so the left hand knows what the right hand is doing in each department.
So we were sitting in my office, and then he said, "There's some interesting
work that came out by Mort Labes at Temple University with (SN)x, and it's
fairly highly conducting." And I asked, "What do you
02:51:00mean Snx? Everyone knows tin's a metal!" But he replied, "No, no, not Snx, but
02:52:00(SN)x." [laughter] And so that's how we got started.
MODY: Well, what intrigued you enough about this to begin moving your research
program into this area?
MACDIARMID: Mainly that Heeger asked me. I had told him that I'd made the
precursor to (SN)x and he asked me if I could make it again. When he first
approached me, I told him, "No. We would have to use a vacuum system, and vacuum
02:53:00systems are like toothbrushes--you don't change them. Once you put one chemical
02:54:00in them, it can contaminate the whole thing." So he asked, "Well, couldn't you
just try it just once?" And one of my post-docs was working on silicon chemistry
at the time so I did it once for him, and the first time it worked beautifully
and we got beautiful golden crystals. But then we tried it again and again, for
about three months, and we couldn't reproduce it. I was moonlighting and my
post-doc was being paid to do the silicon chemistry, but luckily I had the
energy to put in a proposal based on the research results. [laughter]
MODY: So were you only producing them for Heeger at that point, or were you
02:55:00actually interested in it yourself?
MACDIARMID: No. At first I was just doing him a favor. And of course, I was
interested to see whether they were really highly conductive. Because Mort
Labes, in his paper, had said that he had conductivities varying all over the
place in his work, and they were not analytically pure. It's like the old story
that: "Physical chemists do very accurate physical studies on impure materials,
and synthetic chemists do very inaccurate physical studies on very pure
02:56:00materials." [laughter] I'd worked on the polymer test for the sulfur nitride,
and when we got the results, they looked so pretty. Their color has really been
the driving force in my life. This was, of course, a follow-through from the
S4N4 work that I did as a lab boy.
02:57:00MODY: So at what point then did you become interested in the sulfur nitride
yourself as the main area of your research?
MACDIARMID: I've always loved the color, it looked just like gold. And I just
got intrigued by this stuff that I'd worked on. I might also mention that the
(SN)X was not a new compound, it was made by Margot Becke-Goehring at [the
University of] Heidelberg in the early 1950s. So I was only trying to reproduce
the reaction conditions that she had published. As a synthetic chemist, one sort
02:58:00of takes an innate pride in being able to reproduce someone's published work.
And if you can't reproduce their work, you ask, "Are they wrong or am I wrong?" [laughter]
It's very interesting how different fads and fashions arise. Margot
Becke-Goehring came out with this highly conducting stuff in the 1950s, but the
world was not prepared for or thinking about highly conducting things in those
days. And then Mort Labes, ten or fifteen years later, decided to try and
reproduce her work--he got results with chemical purities and conductivities
02:59:00ranging all over the place. So then since I'd worked on something similar in New
Zealand, I thought it would be interesting work when I saw these bright, shiny
MODY: And it was as much of a personal challenge as it was anything else?
MACDIARMID: Yeah. That is right. It was really a personal challenge. As a
synthetic chemist, Margot in Heidelberg had a great reputation. And Mort Labes
had gotten all of these varying results. I thought, "As a synthetic chemist, I
should be able to solve, or at least clarify, the situation between these two
03:00:00groups of workers. I'd like to jump in the middle and see if what I get conforms
with what Labes got, or what Margot got." It was an intellectual challenge, but
once I saw these pretty colors I thought, "Oh boy. This is fun." [laughter]
MODY: Did you start to put the silicon hydride work behind you, or did that
continue along for a while?
MACDIARMID: No. The hydride was when first I came from Cambridge, and then we
03:01:00started looking at silicon attached to transition metal carbonyls. And then we
did things like trying tri-methyl silane carbonyl. These are in the days that
organic metallic compounds and metal carbonyls were arousing a lot of interest.
So I started off with silicon hydride work, and then transition metal carbonyls
were arousing more and more interest as a possible catalyst and so then that
made things like carbon CH3 cobalt tetra-carbonyls. So then we thought, "Well,
what about making silicon SiH3, cobalt tetra-carbonyl and other carbon
03:02:00derivatives?" And it was much easier to work with the hydrogen replaced by
organic roots and by using tri-methyl-silo instead of silo-SiH3 to use three
methyl-Si with a methyl group replacing each hydrogen. And so we published some
papers on silicon transition metal carbon species. And all of these carbonyls
were in colors. Color has driven me a lot, I like pretty things.
03:03:00[Material in the audio files for this section appears later in the transcript.]
03:12:00MODY: Well you were talking about fads of research topics before, what had
changed between the original syntheses of polysulfur nitride and when you and
Heeger took up the question again? What questions had changed that made it an
MACDIARMID: That's a good point. Margot Becke-Goehring in the early 1950s in
Heidelberg had shown this high conductivity, but nobody was interested in
03:13:00conductivity at the time. It wasn't until a key thing developed, TTF-TCNQ. That
stands for tetrathiafulvalene-tetracyanoquin, both of which are organic
03:14:00solvents. If you take an equal amount of solution of TTF and TCNQ and mix them
together, you'll get crystals that have high electrical conductivity. So this
then sparked a lot of general interest and Heeger was involved in its
investigation. So what sparked the interest was probably the discovery that
03:15:00organic compounds can have charge-transfer salts with high conductivity. I think
it's interesting when you have organic compounds with high conductivity, very
much more so than inorganic compounds with high conductivity. So the TTF-TCNQ
area held some indications, and Alan Heeger had published a paper suggesting
some super conducting fluctuations in this. And sparked a huge amount of
03:16:00controversy--a paper came out with thirty different authors disagreeing with
MODY: So was it that these molecules provided a way to expand and complexify the
study of electron transport? Was that the motivation to move from simpler
materials to these more complicated organics?
MACDIARMID: I think the main thought was that the driving force was the whole
physics community--how could you possibly have electrical transport of a
metallic type in an organic material? Just a crazy thought. It's against
03:17:00anything known in the area of physics. I think this was the key thing. One can
imagine having ionic conductivity, but having electronic? I know when we first
published on the polyacetylene there was one very nasty letter in C & E
[Chemical and Engineering] News which said that these people are just dealing
with very high ionic conductivity, or capacitance effects.
MODY: So tell me about the process of working with Heeger and developing a
03:18:00collaboration where you learned each other's languages. What was involved in
MACDIARMID: One of the key things with collaborative research is learning the
language of the other person. One might say, "Okay, all chemists speak the same
language," but they don't. Same goes for physicists or biologists. One of the
key things here is learning the language of the other person. I think one of the
greatest things that hold back interdisciplinary research is learning the jargon
of the other area. In chemistry and physics, one would think of electrons in
terms of mathematical equations while the other would think of them as being
little red balls. One just has to learn to talk to each other. Then it comes to
writing up a paper--if you're writing a paper with your own grad student or
post-doc and there's a difference of opinion, you pull rank and say, "Okay, I
think we should go this way." But if you're writing a paper with a person from a
different department, of similar rank to yourself, you can't just say, "I want
it this way," because then the other person will say, "Well I want it this way."
You have to sort of work together. It takes three times as long to write up a
paper with a person from a different department. [laughter] Interdisciplinary
research is becoming more and more common, and it must be the way of the future,
but it's very time consuming.
One of the key things was that we arranged to get together every Saturday
morning. But we would not discuss the manuscript of a paper or any research
proposals, we were just there to smoke cigarettes and have coffee and let our
minds wander. We would ignore the telephone. For example, I would say, "Okay,
03:19:00let's talk. What is this dangling bond in the band gap? Oh, is it molecular? I
don't have any idea what you mean." And he would answer, "You've got your band
gap here. This is the conduction band, and this is the valence band." Then he
would put down some equations on the backboard and say, "That means that this is
a mid-gap state. And you can have electrons in it." And I said, "It's got
electrons in it, sounds like a non-bonding molecular--if this is the pi
anti-bonding. This is pi bonding. This is halfway, then this is a pi-non-bonding
halfway between bonding and anti-bonding." And he answered, "Yes--I guess you
03:20:00could say that." [laughter] So we got together every Saturday, just to swap
chemistry ideas and physics idea and teach ourselves a little bit about each
other's discipline. It was fun.
MODY: But what about the mechanics of experimentation? Were materials going
directly from your lab to his lab?
MACDIARMID: Yes, we were making the materials in my lab. But the trouble was
that we would have a little bit of success, and Alan would go, "Oh, let me play
with this. Let's do something." I would tell him no because I wanted to make
sure we can reproduce it and make sure ourselves that it's looking right. In
03:21:00that way we got into the doping of polyacetylene in a very unexpected way.
03:22:00[There is audio content in this section that is not transcribed.]
MODY: I see, do you think you could continue with the theme of serendipities?
How did you meet up with Hideki Shirakawa and learn about polyacetylene?
MACDIARMID: Well, that was the most important cup of green tea I've ever had in
03:27:00my life. [laughter] When I was a visiting professor at Kyoto University I was
asked to give a lecture at Tokyo Institute of Technology. This was at the time
of my silicon work and also of some sodium work in polysulfur nitride. After the
lecture I was invited to have a cup of green tea with the head of the chemistry
03:28:00department and Shirakawa, a junior faculty member, was invited to join. And
Hideki, as I found out later, didn't bother going to my lecture; but he came to
tea because he was invited by the head of the department. So while having tea I
03:29:00took out a sample of the polysulfur nitride, and Shirakawa says, "I have
03:30:00something like that. It's silvery in color." When I said I'd love to see it, he
left the table, went back to his lab and brought in a sample of polyacetylene. I
didn't know what it was, so he told me it was polyacetylene. And since I was not
an organic chemist, I asked, "What's the formula of polyacetylene?" So he tells
me that he got it by polymerizing acetylene with a zinc catalyst. So I asked,
"What's the conductivity? It's bright and shiny." And he replied, "Just about
10-5 siemens per centimeter. Like a semiconductor." So I said, "Oh, that's
03:31:00interesting, if I can get some money, would you spend a year with us?" That's
why I wrote to Ken Wynne, to try to get Shirakawa to come over to the U.S.
We started work once Shirakawa got here, and we had some catalysts--aluminum
oxide and titanium dioxide--present as ash when we did a carbon-hydrogen
analysis. Together it was about ninety percent pure, but of course it should've
been one hundred percent. So we decided that we could get a sufficient wash to
wash out the catalyst. We washed it and our sample got better and better,
eventually the purity got up to about 98.6 percent; but the purer we got it, the
smaller the conductivity was! We thought, "This is crazy. When you purify
03:32:00something, the conductivity should go up. Ah-hah! Maybe the titanium and
aluminum catalysts are impure and are acting as dopants, making the conductivity
higher." So that was the key thing. We found the purer it got, the less
conductivity it had. For example, we found that (SN)x plus bromine vapor would
give (SNBr0.4)X, and that raised the conductivity by about one order of
magnitude to that of iron. So we thought to see if we can use the same dopant
03:33:00we'd used for (SN)x. When we did that, the conductivity shot right through the
roof. Later on we found arsenic pentafluoride, which gave the polyacetylene an
even higher conductivity.
MODY: So you had already been thinking of dopants before you got to the polyacetylene?
MACDIARMID: Yes, we'd published using bromine on the (SN)x, which brought the
(SN)x to the conductivity level of iron. But it was
not a large magnitude of increase.
MODY: But it wasn't automatic to think about doping with the polyacetylene until
after you had tried these purification experiments?
MACDIARMID: That is correct, it wasn't until we found the more pure we made it,
the smaller was the conductivity.
MODY: And was Heeger involved immediately with the polyacetylene work as well?
03:34:00MACDIARMID: No. At first, we developed our own technique in measuring the
conductivity of (SN)x. But when we got into the polyacetylene, Heeger had much
better equipment to measure the change in conductivity along with changes in
temperature. We wanted to see whether the polyacetylene had the temperature
profile of a metal or a semiconductor. If it were metal, as you decrease the
temperature, the conductivity should increase. But if it's a semiconductor, the
conductivity should decrease. So measuring the conductivity temperature profile
was very important, and Heeger already had all the apparatus set up.
03:35:00Also, he was much better versed in measuring magnetic properties than we were
since we had no experience at all. Of course, it also helps that Alan has very
good knowledge of the conduction processes and band structure in metals.
MODY: Do you want to tell me a bit about your own experience moving into organic
chemistry with the polyacetylene? Was that a shock at all? Did you have to learn
a whole new vocabulary?
MACDIARMID: Well, the only formal organic chemistry training I ever had in my
life was just one course in New Zealand on introduction to organic chemistry.
03:36:00[laughter] So the real challenge is learning, puzzling over things, and asking questions.
MODY: Was Shirakawa helpful in that sense?
MACDIARMID: Yes. Shirakawa was trained as a polymer chemist, so he was very
helpful. But I found really the interaction with the students in my group was
the most helpful. I really shouldn't call them students, because they were like teachers.
MODY: And what did they teach you about?
MACDIARMID: I've learned so much from them. For example, right now I'm learning
about agri-energy [agriculture energy] from one of my students, who is
03:37:00originally from Brazil. If it weren't for him, I would know very little about
this whole energy study. So I just find that I learned from everyone. And also
as I say, I made thousands of mistakes, and I hope I make thousands more in the
future. [laughter] But I love the learning process.
MODY: What was some of the reaction to that famous 1977 paper on doping of polyacetylene?
MACDIARMID: Actually it's rather interesting. For about fifteen to twenty years
we--Heeger being a physicist and myself a chemist--were taken as mavericks, you
03:38:00couldn't really believe anything we said. Any reports with my name on it drew
comments like, "This is a bumbling chemist who doesn't know anything about
physics." And Heeger worked on magnetism for his PhD, as I recall, so he was
considered as being way of out his depth. He had lost a lot of face by talking
about superconducting fluctuations in TTF-TCNQ. So we were not believed by the
physics group or the synthesis group. We did not belong to any standard group of
people. And people would ask us to give talks at ACS and APS [American Physical
03:39:00Society] meetings sort of as amusing guys with all the crazy thoughts.
[laughter] But we were really not accepted by any group. It really is funny.
It was only after we got the Nobel Prize that we were offered to join the
academy, and even then we were cold-shouldered by everyone. [laughter] But then
more and more people started getting interested, and more and more people
started getting similar results. So slowly then people started saying, "Well,
maybe there's something worthy that these people are saying."
03:40:00MODY: But there must have been some small community that responded to this work.
MACDIARMID: Yes, there was a small, staunch community. For example John [D.]
Miller, who's at the University of Utah, was always a good strong supporter. So
there was a group of people who felt our work was true, and they were interested
to repeat the work themselves. And this is a small support group that kept on
growing and growing.
MODY: How did those people find each other? Were they coming through you and
then meeting each other?
MACDIARMID: Some people met through me, and some others met through a small
03:41:00group called ICSM, the International Conference on Synthetic Metals. It's been
meeting every two years now for fifteen years, and each time the group grew
larger. It does not belong to any official organization, but every time we have
a meeting there are always people from different countries that would like to
03:42:00host the next meeting. And lots of people would come, out of curiosity, to these
ICSM meetings. They would hear the presentations and sometimes some of them
would do experiments themselves. Others would tell more, and so the word spread.
We started off in Boulder, Colorado with John Miller and I think about 115
03:43:00people. And at the last one was in June  with about eight hundred people.
MODY: At what point did people from industry become interested in possible
technological applications? A couple of companies, particularly [the] Xerox
[Corporation] and 3M, have worked with this, right?
MACDIARMID: Right. John Miller was employed by Xerox, and he's a very farsighted
person. I don't know how official this is, but Xerox equipment had used
03:44:00polypyrrole conducting polymers for years; and at John Miller's suggestion, they
replaced that with organic conducting polymers. The organic polymers were better
because it did not mechanically harm the drum, but it was still conducting so
you can get electrostatic patterns on the drum.
In the beginning, a lot of companies thought that we could use this as a
substitute for copper wire, but the conductivity and the air stability was not
high enough. However, the field really bust wide open in 1993 with Richard [H.]
Friend at Cambridge University discovered electroluminescence. By passing a low
03:45:00voltage, say around five to ten volts, through a conducting polymer, the cross
film material would give out a visible radiation. I believe this occurred by
accident on a Sunday evening in Cambridge. It was winter when it gets dark
early, and a student by the name of Jeremy [H.] Burroughes was measuring some
03:46:00phenomenon with a piece of polyphenylene vinylene attached across some film.
Burroughes came into the lab to check the progress on a Sunday evening when it
was dark, and before he flipped on the light, he saw a green wire. When he
walked over he found that it was this polymer film that was glowing. That was
the beginning of electroluminescence. Today the whole electroluminescence field
03:47:00is based on a few volts of electricity across polymers that can give off
different colors, according to the type of electronic polymer and what organic
molecular compounds it had been sublimed on.
There are two types of applications that electroluminescence materials make very
good sense for. One is automobile brake lights and traffic stoplights, and the
second one is for flat screen LED's [light-emitting diodes]. LED's are much
better than liquid crystal ones. With liquid crystal, you can't see it at a
03:48:00certain angle; whereas with LED, you can turn it almost at right angles to your
field of vision and still see the picture.
I think this whole thing of electroluminescence really got the industry
interested in the field. However, people also laughed because, in the beginning,
electroluminescence observed in electronic polymers last in the air for only
about an hour or two. So the liquid crystal people thought that they would be
completely safe, since it'd never be of any commercial use. But now I think you
can get electroluminescent material operating for about 40,000 hours. And then
also a lot of work is being done on photovoltaics, from the point of view of
03:49:00sunlight conversion to electricity. And the efficiency has been constantly
increasing, it's presently not good enough for commercial use, but I'm sure it
MODY: Do you foresee anything else that is sort of up-and-coming with polymers?
MACDIARMID: People are now looking forward to electronic clothing with flexible
03:50:00material, and photovoltaic cells to charge capacitors and so forth. So this is
another step forward with the whole aspect of electronic clothing. I think one
cannot emphasize enough the enormous importance of industry. Once the industry
feels maybe they've got a new product, they will stick at it and see what the
problems are, and then overcome the problems. For example, one of the key things
in electroluminescence is getting a good shield against atmospheric
03:51:00contamination. You needed a good amphibious shield to stop air and water vapor
from diffusing in--and various approaches have been used. For example, we used
several layers of films to lessen the chances of air diffusing through the
pinholes of the film; of course, then the air found another pinhole to go
around, but that slows down the diffusion process. Also, better chemicals are
used to make better polymers to help eliminate air diffusion. But if one looks
back, the role of plasticizers in many polymers has converted relatively useless
03:52:00technological polymer to something that can be really useful. So I think the
input of industry is extraordinarily important, because they will push things to
see where they go.
03:53:00MODY: Tell me a little about the Electroactive Polymers group at NRL [United
States Naval Research Laboratory]. Were they really trying to take your ideas
and move them into Navy-relevant applications quickly?
MACDIARMID: Yeah. One of the thoughts was that one could use this for the
transmission of information through sonic waves underwater. These waves could
then be directional. In other words certain ceramics, like barium-titanate,
03:54:00could possibly have an interesting sort of piezoelectric effect--you put in an
alternating field, and mechanically you'll get information and this can be
directed through water. As a result then you can transmit information underwater
in a directional mode. So from the point of view of an enemy, the transmission
would be hard to find out. Also, we considered other applications like
anti-fouling in naval vessels--we looked at the properties of various type of
conductor paints which you hold at a certain potential that would discourage
barnacles. To the best of my knowledge, none of these ideas turned out to be
03:55:00successful. But there was lot of interest in this area, so I saw lots of feeling
in this direction and that direction.
03:56:00So I would say the key things at the moment. Electroluminescence displays, flat
screen displays in different colors, and photovoltaic are coming up. There are
also various types of conducting polymers scanners. Heeger has done some very,
03:57:00very difficult work regarding that. There's also a lot of interest over
photovoltaic and various types of conducting polymers in the forefront as the
absorber of various things as energy collectors. A small company that's been out
a couple of weeks in Texas is working on having polyvinylene carbon nanotubes in
03:58:00photovoltaics. My own feeling at the moment is that the whole area of electronic
polymers is going to be industry driven. And in doing so, new scientific
phenomena will be discovered. But it will be industry driven--which I think is great.
MODY: I noticed in a lot of the apparatus you were showing me from the 1970s
that you were making batteries and storage devices with these polymers. Was that
meant to demonstrate an industrial application, or merely to show off some of
the material's characteristics?
03:59:00MACDIARMID: The key thing was that we put in some early papers first to
demonstrate, surprisingly, that organic polymers could act as storage material
of electricity, and that the stored charge could be liberated on demand at a
sufficiently high rate of power that it could be useful at some point.
04:00:00MODY: I guess I'm interested in what you and Heeger were doing to build
credibility for this. You talked about how you were very much outside both
synthetic chemistry and physics. What were you doing to kind of get over those barriers?
MACDIARMID: We just tried to come out with research which was solid, so that
people could not criticize it as being done sloppily. And I think our feeling
04:01:00was that good, solid chemistry and physics would stand the test of time. It's
sort of interesting. One of the things that sometimes people say is that, "It's
great to have papers in science." I didn't have papers in science, because my
feeling is that I'm interested in doing certain things. Before publishing
something, I make sure that other people in the group can reproduce the work
without speaking to the person that has done it. We'll have a manuscript and
say, "Okay Joe, can you reproduce the work there without speaking verbally to
the author?" And my feeling is as Emeleus used to say to me--he said, "Theories
04:02:00come and theories go, but experimental facts go on forever."
So the feeling was I'll chug along at my own slow pace, trying to do reliable
experimental work. Emeleus said to me when I left his group, "Laddie, do not go
after the big fish. The big fish, if they're going to come, will come along over
time. Just keep your face in front of the scientific public, and make sure that
your experimental work is reliable and reproducible."
MODY: So were you choosing measurements to make based on interest and then
trying to do them as reliably as possible to show that this field was credible?
04:03:00Or were you choosing measurements that would demonstrate credibility to the top communities?
MACDIARMID: Well, our key thing was to create credibility to ourselves. Can we
reproduce it, or is it just due to something wired the wrong way? And when my
group found that we could reproduce it, we'd ask Alan Heeger to see if he could
really do a proper visible measurement. As an interesting side story, at the
very early stage we found that we very much needed a good physicist. So I asked
a certain physicist in the physics department if he would do some measurements.
We arranged to have lunch together at Houston Hall, and as we were walking out
the little side path and I was asking him if he could do some temperature
04:04:00studies for me. I don't want to say his first name so I'll call him Joe. And Joe
said, "Alan, it's just a junk effect." So I replied, "Joe, if it's just a junk
effect, and you know what the junk is, and you know how to put it in
controllably and maybe take it out controllably, then you call it a doping
effect." But Joe wouldn't have it, he kept saying, "It's just junk. It's crappy
stuff. It's junk." [laughter] So then Alan Heeger entered and said he'd give it
04:05:00a shot. As a matter of fact, with one of our papers, Alan and Joe shared this
small room trying to write up a paper together. And they ended up having a
tremendous fight--one of them walked out of the room and said to me, "You'll
have to make a decision. Whether he goes or I go." I thought about this and
decided that I would feel more comfortable cooperating with Mr. Heeger.
And of course that worked out wonderfully because Alan and Hideki and I
eventually received the Nobel. And after the Nobel Prize came along I had offers
from quite a few places, and I almost accepted a full time position at the
University of Texas in Dallas. Hai-Lung Dai, who was chair of the chemistry
department at the time, was very strongly promoting my staying and keeping my
Blanchard chair at Penn.
So I stayed on a quarter-time position at the University of Pennsylvania,
keeping the Blanchard chair, my office and my secretary. And then I accepted a
three quarter-time position at the University of Texas in Dallas. The reason
that I stayed at Penn was that I had already immediately took the position in
Dallas, but Hai-Lung Dai then got rustling with the administration to keep me
and not let me go. I said to him, "Well, I'm already going, I've already
committed myself." He said, "Look, you can't commit yourself full time to Texas.
What about three-quarters time in Texas and keep some time here?" And I agreed.
I feel that Penn is a great institution, I look upon it like an elephant--it is
slow moving, and it'll never do anything very good or very bad in a big hurry,
it is as reliable and as solid as the Rock of Gibraltar. On the other hand the
University of Texas in Dallas is very much more like a mountain goat, jumping
nimbly from one peak to another, and it may fall into a big abyss along the way.
But I could have stayed on full time here at Penn, and like old soldiers never
die, I would have only faded away. But I liked living my life with excitement. I
like risk. I like being daring. I used to do mountaineering in New Zealand. I
still put in about sixty-hours of work a week. And I like to be living.
Many people ask what I want to get out of life? I say it's not a matter of what
I want to get out of life, it's what do I have time enough to do to put into
life? I carry around a list of things I want to do, and I don't have enough time
as it is at the moment to do all of them. Then things developed very greatly, as
one can see. There are various laboratories in the world named after me. For
example, there is one in Wellington, New Zealand, another in Changchun, China,
and one which I'm very much involved with in Brazil. And this one up in
Karnataka, India and this one was just dedicated about four or five weeks ago
which I didn't have time to go for the dedication. I also received the
Friendship Award, the highest award given by the Chinese government to a
foreigner, for my work and interest in education and development in China.
MODY: So you're still conducting active research? Where do you do it now?
MACDIARMID: I have a research group here and in Texas. Two weeks ago, we just
put in video equipment so we can hitch up with video from the lab in Texas and
the lab here [in Penn]. I like to remind people that I was fifty years old when
I started research which resulted in the Nobel Prize; until then it'd always
been silicon work of various sorts. Then by accident I got involved with Alan
Heeger, purely because we were having a dress rehearsal for our materials
science lab. Each of the faculty members was listening to other faculty members
discussing what they were going to do, and I was interested in his comments on
some organic collectively conducting materials.
04:06:00MODY: Right. Tell me a little about some of the work that I know you were
interested in, and I know also was associated with the NRL program on
electroactive polymers and similar molecular electronics idea of the spun
fibrils of the organic conductors.
MACDIARMID: Yes, actually we were the first people to apply this to conducting
04:07:00polymers along with the electronics. And we published a couple of papers on
that. I think electro-spinning is a very interesting
04:08:00way of getting nano-fibers. Although the conventional method is more convenient
but those fibers, while having the same diameter as the electro-spun ones, are
04:09:00not as long. I think the average diameter of those is around about thirty-two
nanometers. So I think electro-spinning has got a lot of very interesting
aspects to it. They're actually using some of the electro-spinning techniques
04:10:00now in making alcohol bio-diesel, although it is using the context in a
completely different way.
MODY: What was the motivation to begin making these spun fibers?
MACDIARMID: Just fun. Some people had already done some very nice work in
electro-spinning. So we thought, "Aaah, why don't we try to electrospin
04:11:00electronic polymers?" But electro-spinning started off in the early 1930s with
sealing wax. A person was playing around with sealing wax at a high potential,
04:12:00and found you got these thin fibers. But I think there are real possibilities,
one of my former students, Younan Xia, with Chinese origins, at the University
of Washington has done a very nice thing. Instead of having one flat sheet, he
had two electrodes very close together. And then he can take two electrodes that
ground with 35,000 volts, and he gets fibers that he can process. So one of the
04:13:00things you get is fibers of all lines and parallel. Of course, that is getting
closer to carbon nanotubes, which is a rather fascinating area. I work closely
with Ray [Raymond H.] Baughman at the University of Texas in Dallas in that
area, and it worked out very well.
MODY: What else do you think is important in the area of conducting polymers?
04:14:00MACDIARMID: So in trying to think of any other interesting aspects, one of the
key things is from the point of view of the future; we do not yet know why
04:15:00different conducting polymers give different conductivities. Also, we do not yet
know whether conducting polymers can be made that have a higher conductivity
04:16:00than the best electric conductors like copper, silver, and gold. There are
various theories, but no upper limit has been suggested by a physicist or
chemist. To me, it would seem that having highly aligned crystalline material is
necessary. Furthermore, from the point of view of superconductivity, we know
that organic charge transfer compounds can have superconducting transition
04:17:00temperatures. I think the highest is about twelve degree Kelvin at the moment,
but there is no reason to believe that you cannot get superconducting organic
polymers. None have yet been made; however, I feel it is highly likely that
superconducting organic polymers can be made. I don't think anyone can try to
find it on purpose. Research wise you just keep an eye out for it, but the Holy
Grail will be discovered more or less accidentally while looking for some other
property. You never really expect to find it, but if you do find it you'll grab
it quickly. [laughter]
04:18:00My own feeling is that we will get much higher conductivity. There's no reason
why superconductivity at some given temperature in organic polymers should not
be discovered. So I think the sky is still the limit. And I think that the
research in the future in this field will be driven by industrial technological
developments. And somewhere along the line, either by accident or by doing an
experiment for a different purpose, superconductivity or very high conductivity
04:19:00will be observed, at least there's no known reason to say it cannot be.
MODY: Tell me a little about the field of molecular electronics. I've heard
people refer to you as one of the grandfathers of molecular electronics. And
some of the early people who said that they were doing molecular electronics,
like Mark [A.] Ratner, Ari Aviram and Forrest [L.] Carter all reference your
polyacetylene work. Was that a community that you were close to?
MACDIARMID: I think the term "molecular electronics" means a different thing to
04:20:00every person that uses the term. [laughter] The main thought is centered around
getting PN rectifying junctions together, with a Schottky junction, and
therefore, a semiconductor. Now the other thought is that you can get, say a PN
junction, and put two molecules together. I know people have suggested that
they've done this experimentally, but when you get to that stage, there are so
04:21:00many questionable parts about the experimental techniques. When you focus down
to a single molecule, how do you keep up with the electronic equipment to
04:22:00measure them? I think when people talk about molecular electronics they tend to
be talking about two perhaps rather complex organic molecules, or even one
04:23:00molecule, with one end certainly being at P and the other end N type. Still, one
molecule that will act as a PN junction will of course have many applications. I
think that the term molecular electronics means something different to everybody
04:24:00that uses the term. But there I get very lost.
The thought of having complicated electronic equipment calculators the size of
the head of a pin is quite possible, although at the moment I don't see how. But
I think it is also partly science fiction. Think of Buck Rogers having his wrist
watch radio, which was science fiction then, but is now quite reasonable.
So the following is one of the things I've thought about quite a lot. You make a
PN junction, and you'll have two flat surfaces. It'll involve retro-spinning and
04:25:00have a flat surface. This is one of the things where I'm interested in it having
onion-skin layers. Here you not only have something one wire thin, which could
be a nanofiber, but you also have layers of different P or N dopes, like
polymers, or thin films of metals to get PN junctions. So if you had some metal,
then a circular layer of polymer all the way around it, then when you tap it you
could have the P injunction. Or you can have multi-layers, and have them offset
from each other so you could then tap separate ones.
04:26:00But then the problem becomes--as you get smaller and smaller, how do you make
contact with the outer world without the proper equipment? My thought is that
instead of soldering, one should consider a non-mechanical contact way of
tapping with the outer world. So this is from the point of view of having some
sort of micro P junction or something in the thread there. I think that we must
04:27:00put much more emphasis on considering how to make contact with the outside
world. We are all very accustomed to field effect and making these whole
electric fields or magnetic fields, but we need to do more concentration on
non-mechanical contacts. Sometimes I think we need to look back at the crude
04:28:00work we've done in the past and see how using new concepts, new techniques, new
types of apparatus, and new chemicals can build on old concepts and techniques.
MODY: In your Nobel lecture you have a section on nanoelectronics. Were you
thinking about how to look at electron transfers through smaller and smaller
amounts of these organic conductors from the beginning? Or did that come later?
MACDIARMID: I think this became more and more of interest when we got into the
electro-spinning, and finding out that we could make smaller fibers. And then we
04:29:00asked, "Can we use the smallness for anything?" Anyway, we have been doing some
really good stuff. There are two areas that we're interested in now. One is
nano-science where we're really doing research at the moment. We have some
electrically conducting metallic form pure fibers. We can also make small hollow
spheres which we call eggs and eggshells. The work in getting these spheres to
form in solution should be appearing in print for the first time in a journal in
about two or three weeks. These are very small and are considered to be in
nano-science. The diameter of one of my hairs is measured by calipers at about
50,000 angstroms. The nano-science area starts when you get to sizes smaller
than about one hundred nanometers. The smallest wavelength of visible light is
under four hundred nanometers and so you're looking at something much, much smaller.
Then we go on to energy, which is my real area of interest at the moment. I'm
interested because it involves highly interdisciplinary chemistry, physics,
biology, and agriculture research. You know that Brazil has been in the past a
leader in the renewable energy, but it can keep its leadership position for only
about another two years. Six million tons of ethanol is being manufactured in
Brazil, and that is quite remarkable. How can Brazil continue in the future to
move the world in the bio-fuel area? One possible solution that I'm pushing at
the moment is using sawdust and wood waste to put that into bio-alcohol through
enzymatic hydrolysis. A lot has been said about that, including by the [U.S.]
Department of Energy. Then there's bio-diesel, which we get by squeezing nuts
with enormous weights. But as I pointed out in my lectures in Brazil, what do
you with the stuff after you squeeze out the oil? And do you use soybeans that
are meant to feed cattle? That is fine, but what I want to do is convert all of
that into bio-diesel. And according to Bill [William C.] Ford [Jr.], the Ford
Motor Company plans to manufacture a quarter of a million cars in the U.S. that
runs on bio-alcohol next year. That is quite amazing.
Also, I predict in the future that we will have a switch to fuel cells. As I
like to say, Swiss watches were magnificent and beautiful pieces of mechanical
machinery. Then suddenly electronic watches came along and zoom, they almost
disappeared. So I feel in another two decades, people will say that at the
beginning of the 21st century, these magnificent automobiles were fantastic and
wonderful pieces of machinery. Cars of the future will not have engines. They'll
have fuel cells, run on bio-diesel or bio-alcohol. It'll have an electric motor
that'll make the wheels go around, but we won't have any of this reciprocating
engine business. Now I'll tell you that fuel cells must go down a hydrogen
route. I have a recent contract with the Department of Energy on producing
hydrogen from ethanol. We're working on this in the lab here, and trying to
effect this. In principle, we've got a lot of available hydrogen, and it's
better than fossil fuel. And by the year 2015, various methods of chemical
hydrogen storage will become available.
So I think the following areas are important--one is basic research in
nano-science where we've got some completely new stuff coming out. The other is
in international science, economics, technology, and sociology--whatever you
want to call it. I think scientists as a whole need to take very much more
interest in how their science is used, where the world is going, and how we can
Now there's a new thing that it's I think too early to make it official, but
there's a new group of people I would like to take the time to get involved
with. It's called the MacDiarmid Institute for Excellence in Science and
Technology [The MacDiarmid Institute for Global Research Excellence, Inc.]. This
is a non-profit institute, and it was incorporated last week in the state of
Delaware. The name "MacDiarmid" will be copyrighted
and the purpose of this organization is to bring together scientists from all
over the world, particularly those interested in basic research, which may lead
to new technologies which would be helpful to people in the different countries.
I feel that it's incorrect when people say you can't do basic polymer research
and also dabble in technology at the same time. And we have this as proof--in
the twenty-five years that our basic research was setting high standards, a
Nobel Prize standard, we also have twenty-five issued patents. So you can be
involved in two things simultaneously.
Another issue is that you can do first class basic research in two general
areas: one general area where there's no obvious immediate technological use in
science, and a second area where there is a possible technological use in
science. Now if you do good quality basic research in either direction, why not
choose the avenue where maybe there's some potential technological use in
science? Obviously, if you do good basic research in general, somebody will find
a technological use occasionally. But most people, companies, or countries
cannot wait for a hundred years to get the technological use.
So life is exciting. I'm very excited about this new area of energy. Petroleum
[use] has got to go down today, and we must grow our own energy. There'll be
many different types of energy in the future. There'll be hydroelectric energy
and solar panels placed out across the water, et cetera. The energy for anything
in society will depend on the country, the type of conditions, and various other
things. You see, this is to me very interesting. Just on November the 16th
 I gave two main lectures in Brazil. And after the first one, [Richard]
Branson, who owns four airline companies including Virgin Atlantic Airways,
announced he is considering making the bio-alcohol himself and having his whole
fleet of planes run on bio-alcohol. I said, "If an individual entrepreneur can
do this, why can't a whole country?"
MACDIARMID: And then with this electrospinning here, can we use this for
anything? Or is it just nice to say we've got a bunch of stuff that's 1/500th of
the diameter of someone's hair. Okay. That's fine. But can you put it to any
use? For instance, can we use it in solar energy research? Somewhat by accident
I became very, very interested in one small section in Emeleus' and Anderson's
(5) textbook which talked about the effect of electrical discharges on gases. So
we then set up an electric discharge apparatus which is exactly the same as the
ozonizer that we used in a first year organic chemistry lab. When you pass air
through the electrical discharge you would get the smell of ozone; sometimes you
smell this on Xerox machines. The ozone then reacts with the double bonds in
carbon compounds to form ozonide which then can hydrolyze with water and convert
the double bonds into COH groups which you can analyze better. So we made up our
own ozonizer and used a 15,000 volt old neon sign transformer for the power
source. This is about fifteen years ago, and we were able to get SiH4, silane,
and things like dimethyl-ether reacting with each other to give end carbon
silicon bonds. This is going back to old, old literature.
As a matter of fact, one of the things I was stressing in Brazil was the
principle of going back to some of the old literatures. For example, this goes
back to high school chemistry, any chemical reaction can have say A plus B to
gives products, and you have to input activation energy. If you're dealing with
an exothermic reaction, let's say an oxygen hydrogen fuel cell, for example, the
reaction first gives out heat, then it finishes up with H2O. So we say anything
that burns in air is thermodynamically unstable in the air, therefore it will
react, and then release energy as heat by electricity, or a combination of
energy. This is high school chemistry. One other thing is that we know alcohol
burns in air; therefore it's thermodynamically unstable in air. In this case
your reaction will start off with air and alcohol, and finish up with CO2. And
if you start off with bio alcohol, every molecule of carbon dioxide has been
taken in from the air by photosynthesis to make this.
Now normally in chemistry, how do you make two things react? One thing you can
do is to cook it up by boiling it. In other words, you get over the activation
energy, assuming that what you're doing is an exothermic reaction. So what
happens when you actually boil something and heat it together? You raise it to a
higher vibrational state. Or if you expose it to UV [ultra-violet], or sunlight
in the good old days, or either raise it too high of a vibrational state, you'll
break the bond and get free radicals. Now what happened in the ozonizer is you
expose the oxygen in the air to a very intense electric field which involves
very little flow of electricity. The test right here is very important. We have
several papers using sums of the list of discharge, or an electric field. So
that is one of the methods we're using here in the electrical field. That's the
same as a field effect transistor or a ChemFET [chemical field effect
transistor]. The field of a transistor is a sensor of something airborne, let's
say an impurity. You could alter the chemistry of your sensor path by using an
electric field, which we already constantly do in any electronic equipment.
So this is one of the things that really I'll say at the moment is the "et
cetera." In other words, I wouldn't put it on any transparencies for a lecture.
But, it is an electric field, so it can then begin a silent electrical discharge
where you pass air through. That is what you get through an ozonizer or when you
smell the ozone when you're using a Xerox machine. You're not breaking the bond,
so you're just getting the oxygen to go to a higher vibrational level. That way
you get a vibrationally activated O2 molecule which can pair either with another
vibrationally excited O2 molecule, or with a ground state O2 molecule. So for an
electric field, if you have a discharge, you can get a breaking of bonds. But
we're not interested in breaking bonds. We're interested in using an electrical
field with high voltage but low, if any at all, current. We're using apparatus
where thirty-five thousand volts goes through micro-amps, which is even smaller
I feel that this is type of reaction has an enormous future. We've been using
quite a lot of old textbooks which we got through inter-library loans, published
in 1960 or 1950, referring back to papers of fifty years before. Now we are
looking at some of this old stuff, but we have newer types of apparatuses and
newer types of detection methods. So I feel that with the use of an electrical
field, we can try to activate the oxygen in the air or activate the alcohol to
power a car. People will say, "Yeah, but you're putting energy into the
ozonizer." Sure, but the ozonizer we use is a small, conventional one. It is
two-hundred watts, and the headlights in cars now already use that much--we're
only talking about two one-hundred watt light bulbs. Moreover, in any of the
modern cars, you use energy to start the car, you use energy when you're driving
at night with headlights and taillights, and you use energy to drive the
electric motors that circulates the air. So in other words, you already use that
much energy even when all of the energy is created by the gasoline. Similarly, I
believe you can have a fuel cell providing energy. We haven't produced one yet,
but if we can get everything to work, we can make one. And yes, we need to
expend some energy in order to get this fuel cell activation in its peak, but we
already expend energy for all the electrical stuff, so it can be done. That is
where we are right now, and we'll spend the next ten years investigating this
whole silent electric discharge array, but this is a whole new energy area. When
I first started, materials science was the buzzword. Then more recently
nanotechnology, which is still a fascinating field, but I feel that the big
field now is energy. Not necessarily bio-energy, but energy with no pollution of
water, et cetera.
A long time ago, this person, Zoltan Kiss, who developed a solar energy company
in Flemington, New Jersey, was visiting and I showed him some of these tubes
which were in the ozonizer. He asked about some deposit that was in the tubes,
and I told him that I didn't know what it was. That interested him very much,
and it turned out to be multi-silicon. Actually it is silicon sub-hydride, so
effectively it's not silicon, it's SiH0.3.
I became very much involved with his company, the Chronar Company in the
Princeton--Flemington area, in doing research. Our work led to a patent on an
electrical discharge apparatus for which you could take, say for example the
semiconductor SiH4, pass it through and get then Si2H6, Si2H8, and all these
various things. Previous to this, in order to make a
thin layer of silicon solar cells, you would need to take a plasma discharge of
silane. But now they were selling the Si2H6 in cylinders that they made
according to our method. Then you just pass this through a heated tube, and by a
simple chemical beta deposition, you can get a nice silicon and multi-silicon
solar cell material.
All these industrial applications and consulting are nice, but of course the
money always meant very little. As a matter of fact, I was doing some consulting
at the time for Zoltan Kiss. And he'd write me a twenty-dollar check and say,
"Don't cash it until next month." [laughter] And then he'd say he couldn't pay
any consultant fees, which was a lot of money, so he gave me one share [of
stock] of his private company. And it was written on a piece of paper, and so I
put it in the clothes drawer, along with with my clean socks. A few months later
I got a letter from their attorney saying that the company had gone public, and
my one share of stock had split into quite a few shares of a public company.
Then I said to my wife, "Where the hell did I put that piece of paper?" I
wouldn't have completely thrown it away, but I did the next best thing to it. We
finally found it in with the socks. [laughter] The company did quite well, and
we sold some of the stock from that and bought a small condominium. It was
surely interesting it came from this piece of paper that I thought was worth
absolutely nothing. But I've never been interested in money. I've been
interested in being able to do what I want to do insofar as possible.
So the tie-ins were interesting. The first tie in from the sulfur nitride
business, and my Master's thesis in New Zealand, to the polysulfur nitride
electrical conducting polymer, which then later led to the organic polymers.
Also, there's the tie in from the silane work from Cambridge, leading to the
experiment of electrical discharge coming from the textbook by Emeleus and
Anderson to give a method for making semiconductor raids by silane which could
then be composed thinly fairly easily into most of the solar cells. This
progress of one's own work is a really amazing thing in science.
[END OF INTERVIEW]