Polymer professor vs Nobel - Visva-Bharati alumnus wants to set a wrong right

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  • Published 16.07.06

Mumbai, July 16: Mrinal Thakur is an angry scientist ? outraged by the way the American scientific establishment has conspired to deny him his “rightful place” in the pantheon of Nobel-winning scientists.

The professor of physics at Auburn University in Alabama ? who earned his basic degree at Visva-Bharati University before winning his PhD from Case Western Reserve University ? has beavered away for over 20 years in an arcane area of macromolecular science known as non- conjugated conductive polymers.

Polymers are essentially plastics and have revolutionised our lives since they were first discovered over 75 years ago in 1920. Polymers are long repeating chains of molecules that are found everywhere ? in our bodies, in motorcars, tyres, skateboards, and the proteins and starches in the food we eat.

At first, it was thought that polymers were great insulators ? they did not allow electricity to pass through. But then scientists found that that some polymers actually did allow electricity to pass through and they were known as conjugated polymers or long chains of carbon atoms that are alternately yoked together with double and single bonds.

Back in 1988, Thakur busted a couple of myths surrounding polymers. He challenged the premise that only conjugated polymers would allow electrons to easily pass through and, therefore, become conductive.

Thakur proved to the world that non-conjugated polymers ? those with one carbon atom with a double bond followed by an array of atoms with single bonds ? could do the job just as well after they were doped with iodine.

True, if there were alternate double bonds, the electrons hopped along faster but there was no reason why non-conjugated polymers couldn’t do the same, if a little more slowly.

So, what’s Thakur’s beef?

Twelve years after his research, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the Nobel in Chemistry in 2000 to three scientists ? Alan J. Heeger, Alan G. MacDiarmid and Hideki Shirakawa ? for their work on conductive polymers, or plastics that conduct electricity.

In its citation, the academy said: “For a polymer to be able to conduct electric current, it must consist alternately of single and double bonds between the carbon atoms.”

Thakur is outraged that the Nobel committee was deceived into awarding the prize on a fraudulent premise ? a myth that he had busted 12 years before the Nobel was conferred.

But if that was bad ? worse was still to come. Thakur and his supporters have been lobbying hard for recognition and US government funding for his research. Since 2003, the tap has been turned off.

Thakur, who still holds an Indian passport, has now decided to seek support in the country of his birth.

He met President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam last week and defence minister Pranab Mukherjee.

The good professor is a little hazy about what kind of support he can expect. But if a few ministers in the UPA government like commerce minister Kamal Nath could bat for Lakshmi Mittal in his bruising battle for Arcelor, someone could surely come forward to restore a battered Indian scientist’s pride.

“I want the Swedish Academy of Sciences to acknowledge that they conferred the Nobel in Chemistry for the year 2000 on a flawed premise,” says Thakur, who has since been nominated for a Nobel in chemistry in 2002 by his peers at Auburn University for his discovery of non-conjugating conductive plastics and reformulating the principles of conduction in plastics.

David Dyer, professor and chair of Mechanical and Materials Engineering at Auburn University, recommended Thakur for the Chemistry Nobel in 2002. In his letter to Michael Sohlman, executive director of the Nobel Foundation, Dyer said: “Thakur has established conjugation is not a fundamental requirement for a polymer to be conductive. A polymer must have at least one double bond ?to be conductive and that is the correct fundamental basis for conductive polymers.”

Isn’t Thakur being a little too paranoid when he speaks of a deliberate conspiracy by the American scientific establishment to deny him his due? The professor gives a benign smile and doesn’t take offence.

“It would hurt the American ego to admit that an Indian-born scientist has overturned a well-founded principle in plastics conductivity,” he says with a shrug. It has happened before: Subramaniam Chandrasekhar’s theory on black holes was laughed out of court when it was first postulated in 1935 and he had to wait till 1983 before he won the Nobel in physics.

So, what would he like more now: a Nobel or state funding for his research?

“I would like the Academy to first admit that it made a gross error when it conferred the Chemistry Nobel in 2000. The rest will flow from there. As for state funding, I don’t have too many problems raising funds from private sources,” he says.

Non-conjugated polymers offer cheap solutions in a wide array of fields ? from security solutions to incredibly cheap techniques in tyre-making. He reckons that India, which has large natural rubber sources, could find some great uses for it. Natural rubber is the best-known non-conjugated polymer; the others are polybutadiene and styrene butadiene rubber.

Thakur, who has 10 worldwide patents out of which four are in the area of non-conjugated polymers, says he is in talks with Michelin of France, the world’s second biggest tyremaker, to work on one of his patents which guarantees an enhancement in the process of vulcanisation of rubber by a factor of three. Vulcanisation is a key process in tyre making.

There is an irony in all this: in December 1996, four years before he was conferred the Nobel, Alan Heeger was editor in chief of Synthetic Metals, a journal that professes to focus on research on graphite, transition metal compounds and quasi one-dimensional metal compounds. The journal had asked Thakur to peer review an article on a “conductive polymer from polybutadiene”. Polybutadiene is a non-conjugated polymer, which indicates that the conductive properties of these polymers were already clearly established by then.

Hasn’t science always been a bed of intrigue and hasn’t it always abounded with tales of skulduggery?

Thakur admits it has but says never has a Nobel been conferred on a scientific fallacy.

Is there any instance that he can remember when someone was robbed of all credit in similar fashion?

“Satyen Bose,” he says with alacrity. “He was denied all credit for the Bose-Einstein theory in quantum physics.”

At least, Bose and Einstein didn’t disagree on their conclusions. Thakur has upended an established scientific principle ? but has received little or no recognition for it.