Professor Alan MacDiarmid (1927-2007)
I was sad to see in the latest issue of the University of Pennsylvania Alumni magazine that chemistry professor, and Noble prize winner (2000, chemistry), Alan MacDiarmid died on February 7, 2007. MacDiarmid is best known for co-discovering conducting polymers…a complete accident if you read his biography.
MacDiarmid taught undergraduate inorganic chemistry, at Penn, and anyone who had taken the course (including myself) will remember him for his passion for chemistry and his exceptional talent for teaching. Its been a while, but I can still remember his class…he would show up, cigarette, ashtray and chalk in hand (this was 1985 and there was no such thing as a “smoke free” building)…each class would begin with a written quiz…MacDiarmid required his class to know the periodic table from memory…it’s been over 20 years but I can still make it through most of the non-transition elements. Although, I went on to pursue studies in organic chemistry I credit him as one of the individuals that played a role in my development as a scientist.
“Science as Art” the passage below was copied from MacDiarmid’s autobiography:
Seeking the Great White Bird of Absolute Truth
The dependency of any one person’s research on the labors of scores of earlier scientific pioneers is illustrated very beautifully by a few sentences of this variation from a book by Olive Schreiner, written at the turn of the century, entitled, “The Story of an African Farm.” I would like to share with you this adapted portion.
The story concerns a young hunter who, in his youth, heard about the great white bird of “absolute truth” which lived at the very top of a high mountain far in the east. He had spent all his life seeking it without success – and now he was growing old.
The old thin hands cut the stone ill and jaggedly, for the fingers were stiff and bent. The beauty and strength of the man were gone.At last, an old, wizened, shrunken face looked out above the rocks. He saw the eternal mountains still rising to the white clouds high above him.The old hunter folded his tired hands and lay down by the precipice where he had worked away his life.I have sought,” he said, “for long years I have labored; but I have not found her. By the rough and twisted path hewn by countless others before me, I have slowly and laboriously climbed. I have not rested. I have not repined. And I have not seen her; now my strength is gone. Where I lie down, worn out, other men will stand, young and fresh. By the steps that I, and those before me, have cut, they will climb; by the stairs that we have built, they will mount. They will never know those who made them, their names are forgotten in the mists of time. At the clumsy work they will laugh; when the stones roll, they will curse us; but they will mount, and on our work they will climb, and by our stair! They will find her, and through us!”The tears rolled from beneath the shriveled eyelids. If truth had appeared above him in the clouds now, he could not have seen her, the mist of death was in his eyes.…
Then slowly from the white sky above, through the still air, came something falling … falling … falling. Softly it fluttered down and dropped on to the breast of the dying man. He felt it with his hands ––
it was –
– a feather.