Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Alan G. MacDiarmid

Happened to read the autobiography of Alan G. MacDiarmid today. [http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/chemistry/laureates/2000/macdiarmid-autobio.html] He , along with two others, won the Chemistry Nobel in 2000, for the discovery and development of conducting polymers [Fascinating stuff! :)] . Felt truly humbled. He came from a poor family in New Zealand, with not enough to eat, let alone spend on books and other study material; worked throughout his school days - as a milk delivery boy, paper boy , and later, as a helper in the labs - to earn money for his education. Now, he's achieved the pinnacle of success - the Nobel. This may seem similar to the story of several other achievers. But what I really appreciated - was his interest in Science. Even while working as a helper in the lab, instead of cribbing [ which is what I might have done :D], he used the opportunity to explore his interest in chemistry. He first chanced upon the orange crystals of S4N4 during this period, and his interest in them held till the days of his MSc when he specifically requested his Prof and worked on these crystals. To his luck, his colleague, Heeger, [@ U.Penn] discovered conductance in an SxNx polymer , when MacDiarmid remebered his earlier work on S4N4. Together they were able to characterise conductance of SxNx polymers and with Shirakawa, they also worked on conductance of polyacetylene. Moving away from technical details , I want to reproduce some of his statements from his autobiography :
  1. "I am a very lucky person and the harder I work the luckier I seem to be"!
  2. "...an 'A's grade in a class is not a sign of success." Success is knowing that you have done your best and have exploited your God-given or gene-given abilities to the next maximum extent. More than this, no one can do.
He ends his writing with the following story , which I have reproduced here :

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.

No comments: