In a recent poll of the individuals most trusted by New Zealanders three scientists came out on top. The most trusted was Sir Ray Avery, scientist, inventor and 2010 New Zealander of the year. The second was the prime minister’s chief science adviser, Peter Gluckman. The third was Sir Paul Callaghan, physicist and this year’s New Zealander of the year. Sir Paul is also the author of the new biography we launch today on one of this country’s greatest scientists: Alan MacDiarmid.
The acceptance of scientists as the most trustworthy profession of all is an interesting development. In the 1960s and 1970s – when people lived under the fear of nuclear annihilation, planes were dropping napalm on the people of Indochina and there was growing awareness of the environmental costs of industrial development – scientists came in for considerable criticism. They were seen as amoral allies of the military–industrial complex, who took no responsibility for the dangerous inventions which they devised.
All this has changed. Many scientists have been at the forefront of raising consciousness about the dangers of developments such as global warming, and they have thrown their energies into finding smart scientific solutions for the problems which economic growth has caused.
Scientists have also come out of the laboratory, divested themselves of their white coats and begun communicating much more widely to the community. There has been no better example of this than the effective way geologists and geophysicists have explained to New Zealanders, and the people of Canterbury in particular, what has been happening to the rocks beneath their feet. People have also come to appreciate that the scientists’ professional commitment to tell the unvarnished truth is a refreshing quality in a world of spin and public relations.
Both Alan MacDiarmid and Sir Paul Callaghan were, and in Sir Paul’s case still are, outstanding scientific researchers in their fields. Alan MacDiarmid gained his Nobel Prize for his central role in the development of conducting plastics. His work helped bring about flat-screen televisions, solar cells and the flexible electronic circuitry now used in countless devices.
Paul Callaghan’s work examines how molecules move about in complex fluids. His group uses nuclear magnetic resonance to explore these issues; and out of his work has come an institute at Victoria University of Wellington for the study of advanced materials and nanotechnology, which is aptly named the MacDiarmid Institute. The university has also just erected a new science building, the Alan MacDiarmid Building, which proudly displays the Nobel Prize.
As well as being outstanding scientists, both were/are excellent communicators. As Sir Paul writes in the biography, when Alan MacDiarmid came to New Zealand in 2001 his story-telling abilities drew huge audiences to his lectures. ‘More than any scientist since Ernest Rutherford, MacDiarmid raised the profile of science in his home country, showing New Zealand scientists the importance of communicating to society at large.’ Similarly, Sir Paul’s conversations with Kim Hill on Radio New Zealand about science have become legendary, and his book Wool to Weta: transforming New Zealand’s culture and economy is an inspiring vision of an economic future which draws on scientific innovation.
Sir Paul has done an excellent job with his biography of his mentor MacDiarmid. He tells a really interesting story of a man who grew up in the depression of the 1930s, made his own way through delivering milk and newspapers on his bike, and taught himself chemistry by working through The boy chemist – a book he had found in the Lower Hutt library. A Fulbright scholarship took MacDiarmid to the United States, where his huge intellectual ability was able to flower – and the rest is history.
So take a look at Alan MacDiarmid’s biography. You’ll enjoy the story; and of course you will be able to trust it!