Acceptance Speech – Bern, 24.11.1995


Alan J. Heeger

1995 Balzan Prize for the Science of New Non-Biological Materials

For his outstanding contributions to the science of materials and especially for his leadership in disciplines which make up the new interdisciplinary field of semiconducting and metallic polymers. He has thoroughly covered this new field, from basic discoveries to the creation of new materials with applications in both high-tech and consumer product industries.

Mr. President,
Minister Cotti,
Members of the Balzan Foundation,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am greatly honored to receive the first Balzan Prize awarded for the Science of New (Non-biological) Materials. The science of new materials is inherently interdisciplinary; it falls at the intersection of two established disciplines: Physics and Chemistry. In creating such new materials, we seek to understand nature with sufficient depth that we can achieve materials with novel and unique properties; properties that are not otherwise available. This is an elegant and somewhat dangerous exercise; elegant because it requires the synthesis of knowledge from the two disciplines, and dangerous because one is always pushing beyond the knowledge and experience of his background. I started out as a physicist and evolved (not without the pain of errors while learning) into an interdisciplinary scientist. I am, therefore, particularly pleased to be recognized by the Balzan Prize for the Science of New (Non-biological) Materials.

I thank the graduate students (fifty-four in total, too numerous to name individually here), post-doctoral research fellows and colleagues who contributed to the scientific accomplishments that resulted in this prize. If I have one talent, it is certainly to listen to the ideas and the advice of the young people with whom I have the opportunity to work.

My wife, Ruth, has filled my life with love and surrounded me with beauty. She has also gallantly put up with my eccentricities for more than forty years. What a pleasure to share this moment with her!

Until only a few years ago, the idea that organic polymers could exhibit the electrical and optical properties of metals and semiconductors seemed a contradiction in terms. This changed in 1976 when, working with Alan MacDiarmid and Hideki Shirakawa at the University of Pennsylvania, we discovered conducting polymers and opened a new field. Although initially built upon the foundation of condensed matter physics and synthetic chemistry, it soon became clear that entirely new concepts were involved. The reversed spin-charge relationship of solitons in polyacetylene challenged the foundations of quantum physics. I recall with great pleasure the first insights into these remarkable phenomena in conversations with Robert Schrieffer.

New experimental methodologies were required and developed. From the beginning, however, almost every new experiment directed toward an aspect of fundamental science yielded properties with important potential for applications. It was an exciting time.

As in any new field there were many barriers; the initial polymers were unstable and intractable. Throughout the decade of 1980’ s, the field grew, with important contributions from colleagues all over the world. The International Conference on the Science and Technology of Synthetic Metals, held every other year, continues to be a highlight of the field with an attendance now in excess of 1000 scientists.

In 1982, I moved my research group to the University of California at Santa Barbara, where my colleague, Professor Fred Wudl, and I founded the Institute for Polymers and Organic Solids. A talented and imaginative synthetic chemist, Wudl truly introduced the creativity of synthetic chemistry to this field.

Nevertheless, even as late as 1990 there were no known examples of stable metallic polymers which could be processed in the metallic form (a requirement for broad use in industrial products). Fortunately, Paul Smith joined our Institute in the late 1980’s. Paul brought a knowledge of practical polymer science and quickly injected a realization of the need for conducting polymer materials which were both stable and processible. Paul and I founded UNIAX Corporation in 1990. Out of this interdisciplinary “boiling pot” came the discovery of counter-ion induced processibility of polyaniline and the ability to fabricate conducting polymer blends for a variety of industrial products. Yong Cao, with deep chemical insight and hard work, brought the concept to practical reality. Semiconducting and metallic polymers are now being developed for use in “plastic electronics” devices which already include diodes, photodiodes, light-emitting devices, and transistors. The progress since the initial discovery in 1976 has been remarkable; these materials will soon begin to have a positive effect on the way people live.

What about the future? The science of new materials is just beginning; the tools and building blocks are now available for revolutionary progress. We need not be satisfied with what we find in nature; we can decide on the properties we want and proceed to create new materials with those properties! The truly exciting bonus is that, in my experience, in the course of such endeavors one uncovers unexpected, novel, interesting and important basic science. If I were to imagine, for a moment, returning for a visit in 100 years: I am confident that Mozart will still be played and that the elegant BCS theory of superconductivity will still be taught; such things persist. I hope that one will find conducting polymers and “plastic electronics” products everywhere.

The strict boundaries that have evolved between the scientific disciplines are softening and blurring. Fortunately for me, the Balzan Foundation did not abide by the traditional rules and decided to award the 1995 Prize to a truly interdisciplinary field.

No rules; this leads me to a concluding story. Our grandson, Brett, came to visit us when he was six years old. At the time he lived in Philadelphia; he flew to California by himself. Shortly after he arrived, I informed him that I would tell him the “rules” for the period that he would be with us. He was apprehensive until I told him that “there are no rules”. He thought for a moment and then inquired if he could go to bed as late as he wanted, if he could have ice cream whenever he wanted, and if he could “be bad all the time”. I answered yes to each question; there were no rules. As you have guessed, we had a wonderful time, and he was a model grandson. On returning to the airport, I asked him why he had been so good. With the wisdom of a six-year-old, he answered: “I did not want you to change the rules”.

My hope and wish are that the Balzan Foundation will continue the tradition of “no rules” and seek out for recognition accomplishments in interdisciplinary areas at the frontier, for important progress is made by those daring enough to move into entirely new directions.

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