Whārangi 2: Education
MacDiarmid, Alan Graham
I tuhia tēnei haurongo e Paul Callaghan,, ā, i tāngia tuatahitia i runga i te ipurangi i 2011.
Introduction to chemistry
Alan MacDiarmid’s first contact with chemistry sealed his later interest in the subject. He found an old copy of his father’s chemistry textbook and reading it sparked curiosity. He then discovered a copy of The boy chemist at the Lower Hutt library, recalling years later: ‘I took it out and continually renewed it by borrowing it for over a year and carried out most of the experiments in it.’ 1. The book contained experiments which included the manufacture of hydrofluoric acid, phosphene and an array of fireworks. MacDiarmid’s sister Alice later recalled a time during the Second World War, when Guy Fawkes celebrations were banned, that her brother entertained family and neighbours with a display of his home-made pyrotechnics on the back porch.
At Hutt Valley High School Alan was always near the top of the class academically. The headmaster reported that he was a quiet, well-mannered and helpful boy who took a prominent part in the extra-curricular activities of the school, including service in the wartime Air Training Corps.
At the age of 16, after his father retired to Kerikeri on a small pension, Alan MacDiarmid left school and supported himself by taking on a part-time job as ‘lab boy’ and janitor in the chemistry department of Victoria University College, Wellington, washing dirty laboratory equipment, sweeping floors and preparing demonstration chemicals for A. D. ‘Bobbie’ Monro, the lecturer in first-year chemistry. There he took courses part-time and, after receiving his BSc in 1947, became a demonstrator in the undergraduate laboratories.
At Victoria he had a revelation which was to connect with his Nobel Prize some 50 years later. Monro asked MacDiarmid to prepare some sulphur nitride (S4N4). The bright orange crystals sufficiently attracted MacDiarmid that, when it became time to start his Masters thesis, he chose sulphur nitride chemistry, resulting in his first publication, in Nature in 1949. He said of the experience that colour continued to be one of the driving forces in his career in chemistry.