Polanyi, John Charles

John Charles Polanyi, chemist, professor (b at Berlin, Ger 23 Jan 1929). Polanyi descended from a gifted Hungarian family. His grandfather, Mihaly Pollacsek, was a successful railway builder and his grandmother was active in the intellectual life of Budapest. One son, Karl (1886-1964), was one of the century's influential critics of market capitalism. John's father, Michael, was an accomplished chemist and philosopher who did pioneering work on the mechanisms of elemental reactions.

During WWII John was sent to safety in Toronto. He entered Manchester University in 1946 and received his PhD in chemistry in 1952 on the basis of his work measuring the strengths of chemical bonds in compounds that have been subjected to very high temperatures. That same year he accepted a postdoctoral fellowship at the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) in Ottawa, where he worked with E.W.R. Steacie and spent a few months in the laboratory of future Nobel laureate Gerhard Herzberg. Polanyi had already directed his work to the study of the motions of newly born reaction products, and to the telltale imprints of the forces that created them. After two years at Princeton, he returned to Canada in 1956 as a lecturer in chemistry at the U of T, where he has remained as Professor (1962) and University Professor (since 1974).

In 1958 Polanyi and his graduate student Kenneth Cashion published their first findings on infrared chemiluminescence (the emission of light by an atom or molecule that is in an excited state). By introducing newly formed atomic hydrogen into a stream of chlorine gas at low temperatures, they found that instead of losing their energy in collisions, the newly formed hydrogen chloride molecules discharged it in a cascade of infrared photons. Coincidentally, Arthur Schawlow (a graduate of U of T) and Charles H. Townes developed the principle of the laser, for which they shared a Nobel Prize in 1964. Polanyi was quick to realize that his findings could have important practical implications for the construction a powerful "chemical" laser. In 1964 J.V.V. Kasper and G.C. Pimentel were able to construct such a laser based on chemical reactions. Since then, these "vibrational" lasers have made enormous contributions to science, medicine and industry.

Beyond this considerable practical benefit, Polanyi's discoveries have provided a new way of investigating the very nature of chemical reactions themselves. Polanyi's contributions to science were recognized on a global scale in 1986, when he shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Dudley Herschenbach and Yuan T. Lee for developing "a new field of research in chemistry... in which the extremely weak infrared emission from a newly formed molecule is measured." His recent work focuses on the use of spectroscopy (the science that deals with the analysis of the light spectrum) to gain an insight into what he calls the "molecular dance" in chemical reactions, the process by which chemicals change partners.

Polanyi's influence ranges far beyond his contributions to chemical science. He is a vocal critic of short-sighted government science policies which look skeptically on the value of "pure" research. He has been very active in the peace and disarmament movements as founding chair of the Canadian Pugwash Group and as a speaker and prolific author. He has also spoken widely on the nature of science and its relation to creativity and art. He has received numerous honours in addition to the Nobel Prize, including Companion of the Order of Canada. He has also received the Izaak Walton Killam Memorial Prize (1988), the Royal Medal of the Royal Society of London (1989) and 26 honorary doctorates from universities in six countries.