It was 9 a.m., and John Polanyi was still in his pyjamas when he received the most astonishing telephone call of his life last week. It came from a United Press International reporter requesting an interview with the co-winner of this year’s Nobel Prize in chemistry. Recalling his surprise, the 57-year-old University of Toronto professor said later, “I didn’t even know I was nominated.” But Polanyi learned officially that afternoon that he shared the $406,000 award with U.S. scientists Dudley Herschbach of Harvard University and Yuan Lee of the University of California in Berkeley. Polanyi quickly capitalized on the attention that his award brought him to complain about cutbacks in funding for Ontario universities. Speaking at a Toronto rally against those restraints, he noted that Britain, with twice Canada’s population, has won 20 times as many Nobel Prizes. Declared Polanyi: “We must conclude that it is the institutional environment that differs.”
Indeed, on the same day that Po-
lanyi became a Nobel laureate, the federal National Research Council announced plans to trim $20 million from its annual budget, in part by scrapping its photochemistry and kinetics section. That was precisely where, in 1952, Polanyi began his prize-winning re-
search on the molecular changes that occur during chemical reactions. His experiments measuring light given off by new molecules formed through chemical interaction have paved the way for the development of infrared ray lasers used in medicine and industry. But his laser research has also had military applications, which Polanyi says he regrets. Active in campaigns for arms control and nuclear disarmament since 1959, he has vigorously denounced President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative, or Star Wars, program.
The Berlin-born son of a Hungarian scientist Gand philosopher who
left Nazi-ruled Germany in 1933, Polanyi is only the fourth Canadian resident to win a Nobel Prize. The others: Sir Frederick Banting in 1923 for his discovery of insulin; former prime minister Lester Pearson in 1957 for engineering the formation of a United Nations peacekeeping force in the Middle East; and Hamburg-born Gerhard Herzberg, who won in 1971 for chemistry.
As Polanyi joined that exclusive club, he said that he hoped the excitement surrounding his award would quickly die down, allowing him to return to normal working patterns. But first the new laureate will meet Pope John Paul lí and be welcomed to another exclusive club. This week, as the newest member of the Pontifical Academy of Science, he will join an annual meeting at the Vatican of 75 scientists from around the world to discuss science-related issues. Said Polanyi: “Winning this prize is rather like being in Pompeii when Vesuvius erupted. One had a satisfaction in becoming in some way a part of history—but it did tend to interrupt the course of one’s everyday life.” Polanyi is now working on two new projects arising from his award-winning research. “I’m still very excited about science,” he said, “and I’m determined that this event won’t take over my life.”
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