Interview with the 2000 Nobel Laureates in Chemistry Alan Heeger, Alan G. MacDiarmid and Hideki Shirakawa by Joanna Rose, science writer, 12 December 2000.
The Laureates talk about their scientific work together during the years; the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration (7:37); research problems (11:06); the process of discovery (17:37); characteristics of a good scientist (19:58); and their respective recreational interests (22:31).
Alan Heeger, Alan MacDiarmid and Hideki Shirakawa, I’d like to welcome you to the Nobel E-museum and also to congratulate you to the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
Alan Heeger, Alan MacDiarmid, Hideki Shirakawa: Thank you.
For the discovery and development of electrically conductive polymers, plastics. You’re some of the extraordinary trio in the Nobel Prize context, I would say, as you have been collaborating together for a very long time. How did you do? Alan.
Alan Heeger: How did we begin the collaboration?
Alan Heeger: Early on in the middle 1970s, there was a great deal of interest in the physics community in the metal insulator transition and the nature of metals and what was required to make a system metallic to allow the electrons in a solid to become free. I was very interested in that, and I contacted Alan MacDiarmid as a colleague who had experience in a certain class of materials where it seemed that one might be able to approach some of these fundamental questions. We had a lot of difficulty in the beginning just communicating. We both speak, well, English, I mean he speaks English with a New Zealand accent and sometimes that caused trouble too but …
Alan MacDiarmid: That was your American accent that was the trouble.
Alan Heeger: … but it was the scientific language issues, not just the language, I mean seriously, the concepts from chemistry and the concepts for physics in many cases even overlap but the way you express them is sufficiently different that it was difficult for us to understand one another. We began a collaboration and came to that point in a collaboration where we were trusting of one another and confident with one another, which is of course the essential point of a true collaboration. When Alan had the opportunity to go to Japan and met Hideki Shirakawa and I’ll let you tell that story, but then after that the three of us worked together in Philadelphia.
So that was 1976, when we began. Alan MacDiarmid and I began working together I think in 1975, so that’s a quarter of a century and a lot has happened, but it’s been an exciting time for all three of us to see those initial attempts and initial discoveries develop into what is today a major scientific field.
So how did you, Hideki Shirakawa, jump into this collaboration?
Hideki Shirakawa: For me it was a very lucky chance, but before then I had never been to United States for a starter, so when Professor MacDiarmid asked me if I would have a chance to come to the United States, I was delighted to receive your offer.
Alan MacDiarmid: I guess we first met over a cup of green tea at Tokyo Institute of Technology, right?
Hideki Shirakawa: Right. Yes.
And it was just accidental? Just chance, or?
Hideki Shirakawa: Maybe it was accidental because I know that Alan gave a lecture on silicone chemistry. Usually, the seminar was announced by a very large poster and the poster says that Alan MacDiarmid give the seminar on organic silicone chemistry and then the very small letter subtitle and the addition of, maybe, that (SN)x so I saw the large letter but we missed to read the (SN)x. Before then I know that (SN)x is interesting material, one dimensional conductor and I learned about it but I missed it and I …
Alan Heeger: You missed the talk.
Alan MacDiarmid: You never went to my lecture, I’ve never forgiven you.
Hideki Shirakawa: After the lecture, what shall I say? The organiser of the seminar, Professor Yamomoto told me come to here to show the metallic other polyacetylene film so I brought my samples and I showed him.
Alan MacDiarmid: But you were sitting exactly on my left hand side, as you are now.
Hideki Shirakawa: Oh, you know. Your memory is good.
Alan MacDiarmid: Very important time.
And you immediately saw that this is interesting for you? This is what …
Alan Heeger: The visual impression is strong but more than that, both of these men as scientists are very visual and they’re very sensitive to what they see. Perhaps that’s more typical of chemists than of other scientists, but the colour, the lustrous aspects wouldn’t have caught my imagination the way it caught their imagination and they each saw this golden colour of the polysulphate nitride and the shiny lustrous colour of the polyacetylene and it was a point that brought together, maybe we should try something here.
Alan MacDiarmid: This is what quite often that we have said as chemists, the thing that’s attractive as to the field at the beginning was the unusual silvery colour of a polymer of a plastic, so I think we tend to think in the form of pictures and we picture electrons as little red dots running around and Alan, as I’ve often said, tends to think in terms of mathematical equations which I can never understand, so this is one of the fun things in interacting.
Alan Heeger: That’s why you need a scientific collaboration. In fact, this development, this discovery and subsequent development as the citation of the prize, is right on the boundary of really three disciplines – physics and chemistry and material science – and it just could not have been developed without input from these various different disciplines.
Yes. And there is actually the phrase in the motivation for the prize, “for the consequences of cross disciplinary development between physics and chemistry”. This is in the official paper.
Alan Heeger: If there is a long-term consequence of this work, I think that will be one, the legitimacy and the encouragement of inter-disciplinary science. I also think we’re going to see significant commercial products and applications from these materials but from the point of view of the science, perhaps we pointed the way in inter-disciplinary research and making that a desirable and wonderful thing to do rather than something to be discouraged.
Alan MacDiarmid: Or saying the same thing in different words, that possibly this particular award is a truly excellent example world wide of the importance and what can be done in inter-disciplinary collaboration and I think we all believe that this inter-disciplinary collaboration is going to become more and more important in the future years where ideally I think one will not know in a given research group whether a person’s a chemist or a physicist or an electronic engineer or a biologist. One is a scientist.
Alan Heeger: I somewhat disagree. I think we need to have, as scientists, a core where we are really confident and really expert. I think that in this case, for example, we took on, with hindsight, we took on a very complex problem and if we didn’t have the solid foundation of the work that you did, Hideki, of structure and the microscopy and the cis and the trans and the molecular structure and even the crystal structure, I mean, we knew these things. If we hadn’t had that, we could not have moved forward. The scientific community would have just driven us back, you know, without that foundation, so it was really important that we each of us had some really solid core. Now then we, I think, Alan, I agree with you, we then each of us expanded into and beyond where our core was. I think that we need to educate people as physicists and chemists and we need to encourage them to take on inter-disciplinary work but not too soon in their career.
Alan MacDiarmid: This is exactly what I meant, that we were all trained in different disciplines but then the next step is to encourage the interaction of persons who have been trained in different disciplines to tackle the same problem simultaneously.
Hideki Shirakawa: Before we began the collaboration, each of us had enough accumulation of knowledge on each field. That is important.
Alan Heeger: Of course.
Hideki Shirakawa: That was important, yes.
So, this is where you started to collaborate, that you could pass through the obstacles of being cross disciplinary?
Hideki Shirakawa: Right.
What were the obstacles?
Alan Heeger: The obstacles are very, very real. Part of the obstacles are of course these language issues and the different concepts, but I think in this case it was more than that. I mean, we were taking on a really difficult problem with hindsight. We were either courageous or foolish because it was a very difficult problem and if you look back at it at that time and say how would you get through this? Even in the 1990s, which is now, let’s say, 20 years after the original discoveries, there were many people in the scientific community, our colleagues, who seriously doubted that you could ever achieve the purity in the materials that you would need to make, for example, semiconductor devices. Turns out that you can, turns out that you can do so for very fundamental reasons but we didn’t know that early on and so you just go ahead, it’ll work out.
So how did you manage? How did you manage to get funding, for example?
Alan MacDiarmid: The funding aspect is, as we have been discussing recently during this Nobel week, I think, very important indeed and, Hideki and Alan, just last week I was looking at our original letter when we submitted our first communication, and we sent a copy of this letter to Dr Ken Wynn at the Office of Naval Research. Here we apologised for the fact that most of the work – we actually had this in the second to last paragraph in the letter written 23 years ago – we apologised for the fact that most of the work had been done on moonlighting, moonlighting on other grants. But we then said that the other grants were acknowledged and of course by moonlighting, one refers to the fact where one is actually doing research which is not necessarily encompassed in a given subject matter for which we are receiving funding.
Alan Heeger: But the agencies which supplied those funds were very pleased. I mean, success is success. The early work that we did together was indeed spectacular, although, I must say, the first papers were not easily accepted by the appropriate journals, but once it got out, I mean, it was clearly an exciting time and funding was not a problem. I think, as I recall, the biggest issue in that context, in a slightly larger context, was that there was immediately a positive response by industry. They saw the potential, the dream of a new class of materials which would have the electrical and optical properties of metals but retain the processing advantages and mechanical properties of plastics, but it wasn’t true then. It was still a dream. It was 20 years away or whatever and so there was this initial big push, I would say, or at least start-up of quite a lot of activity in industrial laboratories and they quickly became disillusioned. It was only because the funding agencies that were supporting the universities and supported our programmes and our colleagues around the world that we got through this valley, because it did take, let’s say, 15 years before we began to see materials that might someday be really useful.
Alan MacDiarmid: I think in this respect, to stress again the difficulty we had in convincing some of our colleagues that one could work in an area of dirty nasty organic polymers, not nice crystal and materials. There’s one person, a colleague we were discussing within the very early days, concerning collaborative interaction and I remember well this person said something which represented the opinion of many. He said Alan, you know, all of this is a junk effect, don’t touch it. Then I said to this person, well, if you know what the junk is and you know how to put it in controllably and you know how to take it out controllably, could you not possibly call it a doping effect? But I think this overall fell in the past, in the whole area of electronic materials. The physicists, both academic and those in industry, had been dealing with nice, clean crystal inorganic materials and now you came to a yucky polymer, not nicely crystal and just urgh, you wouldn’t touch it.
Hideki Shirakawa: Speaking about the founding, Japan has a really different system as far as the university concerns. The faculty in the National University has received maybe one or two million yen per year without any proposer so within that money we can do without any restriction. I mean, that as I …
Alan Heeger: As you want.
Hideki Shirakawa: As I want to.
Alan MacDiarmid: That’s good.
Hideki Shirakawa: In that sense, the basic research can do.
Alan MacDiarmid: That is still the case, Hideki?
Hideki Shirakawa: Yes, it’s still, yes.
Alan MacDiarmid: That’s excellent.
That’s what I wonder, how do you actually do a discovery? Is it a trial and error process? How do you come into the discovery?
Alan Heeger: No, no, discovery is discovery. You don’t predict it, right, and it comes in its time. You can be aware of events in a field so that perhaps you’re prepared. You can be aware that something’s going on over here that will stimulate your mind, but discovery is discovery. What can one say?
Hideki Shirakawa: And it’s very difficult to predict.
Alan MacDiarmid: Or if you put it in other terms, that if you plot, say, a straight line, here you have known data and then from the known data, then in principle you can extrapolate to the future new types of phenomena based on that known data but it’s an extrapolation of the curve; but the real exciting things are where, rather than extrapolation of the curve, you have a point way over here which is not on the curve, which is not data which you do not necessarily expect from the data and information which is already known. But once you get that new point and look at it for a while, then you can look back and say yes, of course, this is exactly what you’d expect. But at the time you get it, you don’t.
Alan Heeger: And the other aspect, I suppose, of discovery is to come to a conclusion on the basis of too few facts to really get you that conclusion that enables you then to say, well let’s try that, ok? And then you have a discovery, ok? In that sense, you can’t deduce the result from the facts that you have but by being creative, you can say well, put these ideas together in your mind and it makes something whole to you. Of course, it’s still a hypothesis and then it works and then you’re off and running?
Alan MacDiarmid: Or it doesn’t work and then you modify the hypothesis accordingly.
What is the characteristics of a good scientist? Is it high IQ or being creative, as you say?
Hideki Shirakawa: Their personality should be very curious, ask why, ask what happens and have many interests in everything.
Alan MacDiarmid: Or in other words, I feel one has to live it, eat it, dream it, sleep it, has to be complete immersion and I like to try to point out to some of my students at times that the creative scientist is just as much an artist as a person composing a symphony or painting a beautiful painting and I say have you ever heard of a composer who has started composing his symphony at 9 o’clock in the morning and composes it to 12 noon and then goes out and has lunch with his friends and plays cards and then starts composing his symphony again at 1 o’clock in the afternoon and continues through ‘til 5 o’clock in the afternoon and then goes back home and watches television and opens a can of beer and then starts the next morning composing his symphony? Of course the answer is no. The same thing with a research scientist. You can’t get it out of your mind. It envelopes your whole personality. You have to keep pushing it until you come to the end of a certain segment.
Alan Heeger: Persistence is important. Of course, intelligence and IQ are important, of course, but I was going to say unfortunately or, whatever, I know many people who have far higher IQs that I envy so persistence is very important and also an ability to just focus. The autobiographies that you read about, for example, Einstein as the classic scientist suggest that he could just focus on a problem and just not let go of it for a time and with an intensity that is just far more than most of us can do and evidently that has something to do with success in science.
I know that you both, two Alans, are known for being workaholic, I would say. Do you have any other passions besides science?
Alan MacDiarmid: I like to work hard and play hard. Not very much in between, it’s either work or play and whatever I do, I like to put my full energy into it.
Alan Heeger: Many things. I love the theatre. We have a wonderful theatre group in Santa Barbara and I’m on the board of directors of that theatre group and support it and Ruth and I always like to go to London and to New York to the theatre. I love music. We’re great opera fans. We were at the opera the night before we left to come to Stockholm, but the real passion, I must say, is downhill skiing so I’ve gotten my whole family to be similarly enthusiastic about skiing and in fact we’re all going next week for a holiday to relax from this very hard-working Nobel week for a week of downhill skiing, so as a sport that’s the one that I like.
Alan MacDiarmid: You see, Alan’s skiing is snow skiing. Ours is water-skiing. We have a house beside the largest lake in Pennsylvania in the Pocono mountains and all of my children and my wife and grandchildren, we like to get up very early in the morning, about 6 o’clock when the lake is absolutely flat, before other people have gone out onto the lake, and then we go water-skiing together and we do slalom skiing, also one ski skiing and it’s really fun, I find. This last summer, for example, to be actually out water-skiing not only with my children but with my grandchildren.
Alan Heeger: Oh yes, that’s great fun. How about you Hideki, are you a sportsman?
Hideki Shirakawa: In my case my way to relax is to grow plants and also I keep my garden.
Alan MacDiarmid: I’ve seen your lovely cactus in your garden when I visited.
Alan Heeger: I remember you took cactus plants with you from Philadelphia 25 years ago. Do they still exist?
Hideki Shirakawa: Still exist, yes. Not to large but maybe this size.
Alan Heeger: In Santa Barbara, I planted cactus in one year. The next year, the next year, they really grow.
Do you have any cactuses with you from the Nobel week in Stockholm?
Hideki Shirakawa: Oh no, no.
Hideki Shirakawa: No time, yes.
Alan MacDiarmid: No Swedish cactus plants, right?
Not this time. Thank you very much Alan MacDiarmid, Alan Heeger and Hideki Shirakawa.
Alan Heeger: Thank you.
Hideki Shirakawa: Thank you.
Alan MacDiarmid: Thank you very much.
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Their work and discoveries range from the Earth’s climate and our sense of touch to efforts to safeguard freedom of expression.
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