Graduation address given by Emeritus Professor Michael Paddon-Row

Emeritus Professor Michael Paddon-Row gave the following occasional address at the Faculty of Science graduation ceremony held at 9.30am on 22 May 2009. Emeritus Professor Paddon-Row Organic Chemist, University of NSW and recipient of the honorary degree of Doctor of Science.

The photo of Emeritus Professor Paddon-Row is copyright, Memento Photography.

Emeritus Professor Michael Paddon-Row

Graduation address

Well, graduates, this is a wonderful day of celebration for you and your families and I heartily congratulate you! After much hard work and sacrifice, you have earned rite of passage to a scientific career, which might be, for example, teaching, applied science and technology, or fundamental research. Today, I want to focus on the last one of these career paths because, although the general public has a clear view of the importance of both teaching and technology, the practical use of fundamental research, which explores the deep structure of nature, is less clear. This opacity is illustrated by a story, possibly apocryphal, concerning the great Victorian physicist Michael Faraday. He had just demonstrated his latest scientific discoveries in electricity and magnetism to the statesman William Gladstone who then asked Faraday, "This is interesting, but what practical use is it?", Faraday reputedly answered: "Why sir, one day you may be able to tax it"

I will explain the use of fundamental research by describing the origin of an important piece of technology that is used in diagnostic medicine, namely Magnetic Resonance Imaging– or MRI– and showing how fundamental research contributed to its development.

Our MRI story begins in 1911 when, the New Zealand physicist, Ernest Rutherford had just experimentally discovered what an atom looks like – a sort of miniature solar system with a positively charged nucleus surrounded by orbiting negatively charged electrons. Rutherford's so-called nuclear model of the atom was compelling but it violated a cherished law of classical electrodynamics and this got the theoretical physicists in a terrible tizz. For fifteen years they struggled with this conundrum until in 1925-26 they came up with a new mechanics of the atom called quantum mechanics that accommodated Rutherford's nuclear model and further refined it.

Like all scientific theories, quantum mechanics must make new predictions about nature that can be tested experimentally. One such prediction relevant to this talk was that certain atomic nuclei behave like tiny magnets which, if placed in a magnetic field, are capable of absorbing radio waves having a characteristic frequency. This prediction was experimentally confirmed in 1945 by observing that a sample of water placed between the poles of a magnet absorbed radio waves having the exact frequency predicted by quantum mechanics. This type of experiment is called Nuclear Magnetic Resonance, or NMR. Now, NMR might well have remained an esoteric research tool in nuclear physics were it not for the good old chemists, for they quickly saw in NMR a new powerful method for rapidly determining molecular structure and, consequently, NMR soon became firmly established as an indispensable research tool throughout chemistry, especially in synthetic chemistry.

The synthesis of the anti-cancer drug, Taxol, illustrates what synthetic chemists can now achieve with the help of NMR. Taxol was isolated from the Pacific Yew Tree in the late 1960s. Its molecular architecture was found to be extremely complex and it presented an irresistible intellectual challenge to chemists to synthesize it in the laboratory starting from small, simple molecules such as camphor (moth balls). After an epic effort, Taxol was finally synthesized in 1994. Without the aid of NMR spectroscopy, we might still be awaiting completion of the synthesis!

Incidentally, the Taxol synthesis had an immediate practical use. In 1992 Taxol was being used to treat ovarian, breast and lung cancers and it proved to be amazingly efficacious – saving many lives. Demand for Taxol sky-rocketed but a crisis loomed. Unfortunately, the sole source of Taxol in the pre-1994 days was the comparatively rare and very slow growing Pacific Yew Tree and it required the destruction of three yew trees to produce sufficient quantities of Taxol to treat a single cancer patient. The crisis was averted because chemists were able to apply some crucial chemical reactions used in the Taxol synthesis to convert a readily available chemical into Taxol with negligible environmental impact. So, Taxol in use today is semi-synthetic and it is one of the top selling anti-cancer drugs.

And now we come to MRI. Because our bodies comprise more than 90% water and water gives an NMR signal, it was possible to modify NMR machines so that they produced non-invasive images of the body's internal organs and tissues. These modified Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Imaging machines were renamed Magnetic Resonance Imaging machines, minus the emotive adjective "Nuclear" from the name! The MRI machine has a superconducting magnet with a cavity big enough to accommodate a patient's body. Once inside the magnet cavity, the patient is zapped – gently bathed! –with harmless pulses of harmless radio waves and the resulting NMR spectra are then transformed into body images.

From this tale of the origin of MRI we can now discern the practical use of fundamental research. It is this: Knowledge! Knowledge gained from fundamental research is the well-spring, the primary source of all revolutionary technologies, MRI being just one example. Thus, I find it inconceivable that MRI could have been invented without there being prior knowledge gained from fundamental research in nuclear physics, quantum mechanics and the chemical applications of NMR.

All this can be summed up by telling you one of Einstein's jokes, reputedly, the great man's favourite joke. Here it is.

A man is having trouble with his car; it frequently stalls. So he goes to a garage and asks them to fix it. They replace the transmission and put in new spark plugs. But the car still doesn't run right so he takes it to another garage. At this second garage, the mechanic pokes around for ten minutes, then pulls a screwdriver out of his belt and tightens a screw. And now the car runs perfectly. But the man is irate when he receives a bill in the mail for $200. He storms back to the mechanic and says, "This is outrageous! All you did was tighten a screw and you ask for $200. I want an itemized bill!" So, the mechanic takes out a pad and pencil and writes down an itemized bill as follows:
Labour: turning screw $5
Knowing which screw to turn $195

It only remains for me to wish you success fulfilment and happiness in your future careers!