New Zealand’s second Nobel prizewinner, after Ernest Rutherford, champions pure science as an end in itself and a thing of beauty.
At the same time, though, he sees applications of his prize-winning discoveries — concerning electrically conducting plastic film — in everything from computers to cellphones to supermarket trolleys. While in New Zealand, he will be trying to interest local entrepreneurs in practical developments based on his experiments.
Professor Alan McDiarmid, formerly of Victoria University but now at the university of Pennsylvania in the US, gave a guest lecture on the subject of “New Zealand in the technological 21st Century — leader or follower?” at Victoria last week. But anyone expecting advice on how to attract seed and venture capital to new ideas and spark the “knowledge economy” would have been disappointed.
In an address leavened with humour, he exhorted New Zealanders to “go aggressively after what we can attain. We have established leadership in farming,” he says; “We can do it in technology.”
As far as practical lessons go, he advises scientists to seek multidisciplinary co-operation; his Nobel prize was shared with a physicist and a polymer chemist, while his own field is electronics and electrochemistry. He also echoes Isaac Newton in counselling aspiring researchers to “stand on the shoulders of giants”, to explore thoroughly the work of their predecessors and build on it rather than trying to do everything from scratch.
When people ask him “what use is this discovery?” he is inclined to reply “what use is a poem?” he says.
Yet despite this, he has his feet firmly on the ground with a view to applications. Already, the conductive films are being used in cellphones. They could, he says, produce flexible electronic chips made of cheaper materials than silicon; the polymers can be “doped” in a similar way to silicon chips, introducing atoms and molecules of other substances to give microscopic parts of them different electronic properties.
One possible application, he says, is for electronic coding to be stored in a tiny film “chip”, costing “about a cent” and stuck to supermarket packets. This would allow every item in a trolley to be identified and priced in a second by a set of scanning “hoops” over the aisle, without moving the goods across the counter.
By showing the films and a few crucial diagrams and texts to New Zealand businesspeople, he says he hopes to get something going here on some of these applications.
McDiarmid acknowledges the colour of chemicals as one of his original attractions to the field, and gives credit to the colours of the New Zealand landscape, particularly gorse.