Editor’s Note – On Dec. 10, 2000, two UCSB professors made a trip to Stockholm, Sweden, where each received a Nobel Prize. This series profiles UCSB’s three Nobel laureates – Alan Heeger, Herbert Kroemer, and Walter Kohn, who earned his Nobel Prize two years ago. Today’s article features the life of Heeger. Tomorrow’s story will feature Kohn, and Thursday’s story will feature Kroemer. Friday’s article will look at the impact of a Nobel Prize on a university, and the impact these laureates will have on UCSB’s growing academic reputation.
On the way up the chairlift at a ski resort, UCSB physics Professor Alan Heeger and his son David came up with an idea. Alan was chatting away about his research, telling David about the latest and greatest in plastic materials.
David, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Stanford University, realized that his father’s latest material did a kind of processing that was similar to the first steps of neural processing done in the retina. The chairlift discussion turned into a paper, which turned into a 1995 father-son article in Science magazine on building a device out of conductive plastics that could perform similar functions as a human retina.
The Heegers have been a busy family – the other son Peter is an immunologist at Case Western University, and has also worked with his father. Working across disciplines with his sons is all part of the way Alan Heeger practices science. It has served him well; his research has led to commercial success for a new kind of plastics useful in computer screens, “smart” windows that automatically block sunlight, cellular phone displays and flat-screen televisions.
Heeger’s contribution was discovering a way to make plastics conduct electricity, opening up the possibilities for these commercial applications.
The impact of this was understood by the Nobel Prize Committee, which called from Sweden on Tuesday, Oct. 10, at 6:15 a.m.
Oct. 10, 2000: Call From the Nobel Committee
Heeger doesn’t remember what the man said, or how long the phone call lasted. “You ought to remember what someone says at a time like that,” he recalled, “but I don’t remember what he said. I remember I understood what was going on. It lasted I don’t remember how long. I remember I wanted to get off the phone and start shouting.”
He had only 15 minutes before the Prize Committee announced the award to the world – enough time to call his two sons and close family. And then, the phone began ringing.
David Heeger was just as excited. “I mean, the phone rings … no one ever calls us before 6 [a.m.],” he said. “I was thinking this was one of those automated advertising things. I was completely surprised; I started yelling and jumping up and down. I woke up my two daughters. I’m surprised we didn’t wake up the neighbors.”
1936-1962: Getting to Do the ‘Real Stuff’
It took a lifetime of work in the sciences for the 64-year-old Heeger to get to that point.
He was raised in Nebraska, where he took an early interest in science and mathematics. “I didn’t find it particularly easy,” he said. “In fact, that was part of the reason I wanted to go farther with it. There must be something here I can understand.”
He went to the University of Nebraska for his undergraduate studies, where he picked engineering as his major – for one quarter. With no experience in the subject, he changed his major to physics. But something bothered him. “Somehow,” he said, “I always felt this wasn’t the real stuff yet, and I was looking forward to graduate school for that.”
As a graduate student at UC Berkeley, Heeger got his chance. “I remember the first day in the laboratory,” he said. “The courses are very important, but I just didn’t feel I was really doing science until I was doing my own science, and that was such a thrill for me. I got a big kick out of it.”
1962-1982: University of Pennsylvania Professor
His lab work at UC Berkeley led to a degree in condensed matter physics and a position as assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania, where he would stay for the next 20 years, climbing the ranks from assistant to associate professor, to professor, and finally, for his last year, to vice provost for research.
Much of the groundwork for the Nobel Prize came in those years; it was at Pennsylvania that Heeger met and began to work with his fellow Nobel laureates Alan MacDiarmid and Hideki Shirakawa.
It was also at Pennsylvania that Heeger began his work on plastics. In 1975, he took a polymer he had been working on, made up of repeated units of sulfur and nitrogen, to a chemistry professor named Alan MacDiarmid, who had some expertise in synthesis.
The two talked for a couple of hours. But all of a sudden, Heeger realized something. He had been saying SN-SN (a chain of disulfur nitride molecules bonded together), while MacDiarmid had been hearing Sn-Sn (a chain of tin atoms). He had been trying to convince MacDiarmid that he had made a metal, when, as “any chemist knows, and he was a chemist, that tin should be a metal. What’s the big deal?”
1970s: First Experiments With Polyacetylene
A polymer, like polyacetylene, is a long string of molecules chained together, with one unit repeated over and over again. For polyacetylene, the repeating unit is a carbon atom bonded to one hydrogen atom, and connected to two other carbon atoms in the chain. Because carbon has enough electrons to form four bonds, it has one extra electron, which, Heeger suspected, could be moved. The movement of electrons leads to an electric current.
In 1977, MacDiarmid went to Japan to give a lecture on the future of polymers. There, he met a young Japanese man named Hideki Shirakawa, who had conducted his own work on polyacetylene. After MacDiarmid and Heeger convinced Shirakawa to join them in Pennsylvania, their work got one step closer to the ultimate prize in chemistry.
At the same time, Heeger had climbed the ranks to a spot as professor, and he tried work as an administrator for a year. During that time, a colleague and friend named Robert Schrieffer, a UCSB professor and also a Nobel laureate, asked Heeger to come to Santa Barbara.
He flew out to the school and looked around, and decided against it. But a few months later, there was a scientific conference in Colorado, and after that Heeger was “keyed up” on the experimental science. “This was what I wanted to do,” Heeger said. “I didn’t want to go back and do administration anymore, so I called up Schrieffer, and I said, ‘I’m on my way to Santa Barbara to talk business.’ We did it in a few days, and I came a few months later in July 1982, and have never been sorry since. It’s been great here.”
The 1980s were a decade of advances in polymer science, where researchers uncovered many of the underlying chemical and physical principles of the plastics. “It looked like the materials were coming to a point of maturity where you could see the possibility of commercial products or applications,” Heeger said.
In the 1990s, scientists like Heeger began to first consider the applications of polymers – a wildly successful consideration. The new polymers have all the conducting properties of metal semiconductors, but they keep the properties of plastic as well. They can be melted, put in solutions and processed cheaply.
He now predicts by 2001, people will be able to buy cellular phones with polymer light emitting diode (LED) displays. There has also been work to make plastic integrated circuits, plastic displays and plastic labels.
In recent years, Heeger has moved into applications, exploring the use of polymers in bio-sensors with his son Peter. It’s a new way of doing science, reaching across disciplines, but one that has always been a hallmark of Heeger’s career.
“You’re learning,” he said. “It’s a little dangerous, because you’re pushing into directions you know little about, so you can make a mistake. So, you really need colleagues to interact with, to help the whole thing keep on the right track. But basically, my whole scientific life has been an example of interdisciplinary science. I started out as a physicist, but I guess I am what I have become.”