CBC Digital Archives

1986: John Polanyi awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry

Canadian scientist John Polanyi has been awarded the prestigious Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Polanyi shares the prize with Americans Dudley Herschenbach and Yuan T. Lee for their development of a new area of chemistry research known as reaction dynamics. Polanyi, a professor at the University of Toronto, has been working in this field of study for some 30 years. In this CBC Television report, Polanyi celebrates his win with friends and family.

• John Charles Polanyi was born on Jan. 23, 1929 in Berlin. He immigrated to Canada during the Second World War.

• Polanyi earned his PhD in chemistry at Manchester University in 1952. He was later a research associate at Canada's National Research Council and a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton University. In 1956, Polanyi became a lecturer at the University of Toronto.

• Polanyi admitted that at first, science wasn't a natural fit at university. "In the laboratory I found that it was necessary to follow procedures that had not been fully explained (if, indeed, the explanations were known) in order to obtain the 'right' result. Out of curiousity I would vary the method from that given in the laboratory manual, with the consequence that I routinely got the 'wrong' result. All this was symptomatic of the fact that I lacked the discipline to learn, or at any rate to learn with any degree of pleasure, the large number of rules that one must master before one can play the game of science." Nobel website autobiography, John Polanyi.

• The Nobel Prize committee commended Polanyi for developing "the method of infrared chemiluminescence, in which the extremely weak infrared emission from a newly formed molecule is measured and analysed. He has used this method to elucidate the detailed energy disposal during chemical reactions."

• Polanyi, Herschenbach and Lee were jointly applauded for developing reaction dynamics which "has provided a much more detailed understanding of how chemical reactions take place."

• "We three have known each other for decades. Now, because of you, we regard one another with a new sense of wonder. Because of you our wives hesitate for just an instant before summoning us to do the dishes. Thanks to you the wider community of reaction dynamicists, who share our interests and have contributed in a vital fashion to the development of this field, declare themselves proud." - John Polanyi, Nobel banquet in Stockholm, 1986.

• Aside from his scientific achievements, Polanyi is also renowned for promoting peace and disarmament. He was the founding chair of the Canadian Pugwash Group - a group of scholars and scientists dedicated to the promotion of peace. Polanyi also writes and speaks about the link between science and art.

• Polanyi married musician Anne Ferrar Davidson in 1958. They have two children, Michael and Margaret.

• The Nobel Prize is awarded yearly in the fields of physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace. The prizes have been awarded annually since 1901. The prize is named after its founder, Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite.

• Other Canadians who've won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry include: William Giauque (1949), Gerhard Herzberg (1971), Henry Taub (1983), Sidney Altman (1989), Rudolph Marcus (1992) and Michael Smith (1993).

Also on December 10:
1949: The Supreme Court of Canada becomes the country's final legal authority. A federal law ends appeals to the Judicial Committee of the British Privy council.
1954: The 1,280-metre Canso Causeway is completed between mainland Nova Scotia and Cape Breton. It opens on August 13, 1955.
2000: The first gay marriage in Canada is performed at the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto.

Medium: Television
Program: The National
Broadcast Date: Dec. 10, 1986
Guest(s): John Polanyi
Reporter: Larry Stout
Duration: 1:51

Last updated: February 8, 2012

Page consulted on August 21, 2012

All Clips from this Topic

Related Content

Topic: Stephen Hawking

He is one of the most brilliant minds of a generation. Stephen Hawking has illuminated the dar...

Topic - David Suzuki: Scientist, Activist, Br...

For over three decades, David Suzuki has been Canada's foremost environmental conscience. From...

1905: Einstein's 'Miracle Year'

One century ago, a young patent clerk published five papers that would forever change our conc...

Can gene doping build the perfect athlete?

New science raises the spectre of altering athletes' DNA to improve performance.

Metric system: Metre mistake?

When 18th-century surveyors scientifically determined what the length of a metre would be, it ...