Story: Physics, chemistry and mathematics

Page 5. Scientists as designers and creators

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Physical scientists can also be designers, piecing together atoms, molecules or different elements to create new forms. These may meet a functional need or may have new functions yet to be imagined.

MacDiarmid and conducting plastics

Alan MacDiarmid shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2000 with Alan Heeger and Hideki Shirakawa for their discovery that plastics could conduct electricity. Serendipity, along with MacDiarmid’s lifelong fascination with colour, played a role in their success. MacDiarmid studied the bright orange crystals of sulfur nitride for his MSc thesis at Victoria University of Wellington in the 1950s. Years later, at the chemistry department of the University of Pennsylvania in the United States, he worked on a newly discovered golden-coloured material called polysulfur nitride that was known to conduct electricity.

While on a 1975 visit to Japan, Macdiarmid was shown a silver-coloured polyacetylene by Hideki Shirakawa. Shirakawa explained that the polyacetylene was the result of a misunderstanding by a newly arrived foreign student, still struggling with the Japanese language. The student had made the catalyst for a planned experiment 1,000 times stronger than instructed and, rather than acting as a catalyst, the reagent had created a new product with conductive properties. MacDiarmid recalled that adding bromine to polysulphur nitride increased its conductivity. He added bromine to the polyacetylene and found its conductivity increased millions of times.

Nanotechnology and ‘molecular chefs’

In the 2010s at Wellington-based Boutiq Nanoparticle Solutions, chemist Richard Tilley designed nanoparticles of all sorts of sizes, shapes and surface textures, using materials like gold, palladium and nickel. These unique particles are used around the world, including by scientists and engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Margaret Brimble was a distinguished professor of chemistry at the University of Auckland who won the 2012 Rutherford Medal, New Zealand’s highest science honour. She considered chemistry a very creative field, sometimes referring to herself as a ‘molecular master chef’. 1 Her work designing and making molecules with therapeutic properties demanded not just patience and persistence but a lot of imagination.

Angelic collaboration

In 2005 a project called Are angels OK? teamed up leading New Zealand writers – poets, fiction writers and a comic artist – with physicists. Led by poet Bill Manhire and physicist Paul Callaghan, the initiative resulted in a series of public performances, radio shows and a book. The writers were inspired by conversations with the physicists to explore topics such as dark energy, the curvature of space-time and wave particle duality, while one physicist tried his hand at poetry.

Paul Callaghan and scientific creativity

Physicist Paul Callaghan wanted to go to Antarctica, so he designed a device to measure brine content in sea ice. In 1994 he got funding to take it to the frozen continent. The portable nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) device he used turned out to have far wider applications. Callaghan, seeing the potential of the new technology, founded the company Magritek. In the 2010s the company manufactured portable NMR and MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) devices for the oil and gas industry and for research and educational institutes around the world.

While working at Victoria University of Wellington, where he founded the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, Callaghan became a passionate advocate for creativity in science and for fostering connections between science, the arts and business.

Cultural contrast

Māori ethnobotanist and natural-products chemist Meto Leach pondered, ‘Mātauranga Māori is founded on Te Ao Māori or Māori world view and as such is steeped in culture and spirituality. Compare this to Western science – a discipline based on formulation, empirical testing and challenging of theories. Where then do these seemingly contrasting world views find common ground?’2

Māori science

In New Zealand, Māori knowledge and western science have sometimes come together to produce new and innovative ideas or products. In 2000 Victoria University of Wellington design student Christall Rata – who had a strong science background – developed and patented a chemical process to make hapene, a net-like textile product, from harakeke or New Zealand flax (Phormium tenax). Pauline Harris combined research in astrophysics with Māori astronomical star lore. She hoped to revitalise the study of Māori traditional knowledge and inspire future generations to work in this area.

  1. Rebecca Priestley, ‘Margaret Brimble: molecular master chef.’ New Zealand Listener, 27 November 2012, (last accessed 17 January 2014). Back
  2. Quoted in Veronika Meduna and Rebecca Priestley, Atoms, dinosaurs & DNA: 68 great New Zealand scientists. Auckland: Random House, 2008, p. 125. Back
How to cite this page:

Rebecca Priestley, 'Physics, chemistry and mathematics - Scientists as designers and creators', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 29 May 2023)

Story by Rebecca Priestley, published 22 Oct 2014