On the morning of October 15, 1986, Professor John Polanyi was awakened by a news service phoning to ask him what he had won the Nobel Prize for. This was no prank call: It turned out that Sweden’s Nobel Foundation had awarded the prestigious prize to Polanyi, along with two other scientists, for their work in chemistry. In his acceptance speech in Stockholm, Polanyi shone the spotlight on science itself. “When, as we must often do, we fear science, we really fear ourselves,” he said.
The equipment in this photo consists of “high-vacuum chambers in which we channel molecules to see if they exchange atoms when they collide,” says Polanyi. His casual explanation belies the decades of research that preceded his Nobel win. By measuring infrared light emitted by reacting molecules, Polanyi and his team came to understand the motions of atoms in that fleeting instant when chemical reactions occur – work that led to the development of the chemical laser.
The scientist has also made his mark as a public intellectual, pleading passionately against nuclear armament and war. When asked if the Nobel Prize changed his life, Polanyi draws attention away from himself. “I have a lively research group working with me, just as I had in the past,” he says. “We’re still asking questions about how molecules behave.” A salutary difference: “Modern science has provided us with wonderful new tools to examine single molecules before and after they’ve ‘changed partners.’ More than ever we can see the molecular dance in action.”
Watch a 2009 interview with Nobel Prize laureate John Polanyi: