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Leave a Message

Tuesday, October 10, 2000, proved an especially busy day for Alan MacDiarmid’s answering machine.

By Jason Sylvestre | May 8, 2011
Alan MacDiarmid

Alan MacDiarmid at the 2000 Nobel Centennial Symposium, hosted by the Chemical Heritage Foundation.

Science History Institute/Douglas A. Lockard

“This is Alan the Nobelist. I’m away from my desk right now . . .”

On most days the answering machine in Alan MacDiarmid’s office at the University of Pennsylvania captured questions from students, notes MacDiarmid left for himself, calls from fellow chemists, and messages from his wife. But Tuesday, October 10, 2000, proved an especially busy day for MacDiarmid’s answering machine. The first message, at 9 a.m., came from Erling Norrby in Sweden, who urgently wanted to speak with MacDiarmid and said that he would call back in 10 minutes.

Twenty-six minutes later came the first of many congratulatory messages, for Norrby had called to inform MacDiarmid of the Nobel committee’s decision to award him the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. News outlets from around the globe, including German National Radio, CBS Radio News, ABC News Radio, CNN, NHK TV network in Japan, and local KYW Radio, called to request an interview.

MacDiarmid’s work with conductive polymers and plastic batteries earned him the Nobel Prize. Working with Alan Heeger and Hideki Shirakawa, MacDiarmid had discovered that when polyacetylene is doped with various combinations of chemicals, including iodine and bromine, its conductivity increases by the order of millions. Their research helped produce commercial plastic batteries, flexible plastic transistors and electrodes, electromagnetic shielding, and electroluminescent display screens.

Many of the following messages came from friends who were “jumping up and down with joy” and “tickled pink,” and who shouted “congratulations!” into their phones. Former colleagues called with remembrances and best wishes. Colleague Wayne Jones called to congratulate MacDiarmid and also to relieve him of responsibilities for a proposed publication. Department chair George Palladino wanted to arrange a departmental celebration for later that day. Louis Berneman, from the Center for Technology Transfer, crowed that the announcement could not have come at a better time; a meeting with potential investors about one of MacDiarmid’s recent inventions was planned for that very afternoon. Ken Wynne joked that he would have to renegotiate MacDiarmid’s honorarium for an upcoming seminar.

Former student Gary Ming called with his congratulations and said that he was “very happy and so proud I could receive a PhD from your group; it was the best thing I got in my life.” Rakesh Kohli, another former student, suggested MacDiarmid change his answering-machine message to “Alan the Nobelist, from Penn.”

Other callers were more cryptic. An unnamed caller said, “Well, Alan, it’s happened, congratulations. Talk to you later. Bye-bye.” Chemist Albert Cotton’s office called, simply asking for a return phone call. By noon the answering machine was full; the last call was cut off halfway through.

The microcassette from Alan MacDiarmid’s office is now part of our Alan MacDiarmid Collection, a comprehensive record of MacDiarmid’s career as a chemist. The collection is currently being processed and will soon be available to researchers.