A Scientist and the World He Lives In
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 27 Nov 1986, p. 149-161
Polanyi, John C., Speaker
Media Type
Item Type
A joint meeting of The Empire Club of Canada and The Canadian Club of Toronto.
A brief personal history, including the progress of the speaker's research. The role of his graduate students. Their intellectual courage and what that means. Some discussion of the nature of research. The speaker's regret at the lack of support for research in Canada. Reasons for scientists to work abroad. The dangers of restricting science to developed fields where the links to technology are most evident. Examples of long-term payoffs when science is allowed to attempt to answer fundamental questions and, having answered them, suggests fundamentally new approaches in the realm of applications. Waste at universities of human resources due to underfunding. Why Canada needs both flourishing science in addition to vigorous technology. An illustration of the themes addressed in the field of nuclear technology. The reduction in arms debate and SDI. The challenge to mankind made by science and technology, through the advent of weapons of mass destruction.
Date of Original
27 Nov 1986
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Full Text
John C. Polanyi, C.C., Ph.D., Professor of Chemistry, U of T Canada's 1986 Nobel Prize Winner
Chairman: Nona Macdonald President


Alfred Bernard Nobel made a lot of money as the inventor of dynamite. But he was concerned about having created such a destructive substance, and, before he died in Sweden in 1896, he willed millions to award annual prizes to individuals regardless of nationality, who made valuable contributions to the good of humanity. Today we shall meet our own Nobel winner, John Polanyi, who also a scientist, is concerned about the betterment of humanity and the dangers of destructive potential far greater than dynamite.

Is Professor Polanyi the fourth or the fifth Nobel winner named for Canada? It depends on how you examine the question. Canada has been awarded the Nobel four times: The first for medicine, when Sir Frederick Banting and Dr. J.J. Mcleod discovered insulin at the University of Toronto; the second for international peace which went to former Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, a University of Toronto graduate. The third for chemistry when the National Research Council's Gerhart Herzberg was named in 1971; and the fourth, again for chemistry, to our guest today. Four prizes, five people. But only four are Canadians, Dr. Macleod was a Scot with a British passport!

Professor Polany received the news six weeks ago, on October 15. There is a saying that good things come in small packages-in the same way big news came in a brief communique. Allow me to read the telegram which brought this world-shaking information:

"I have the honour to inform you that the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences decided to award the 1986 year's Nobel Prize in Chemistry jointly to you and Professors Dudley R. Herschbach and Yuan T. Lee for your contributions concerning the dynamics of chemical elementary processes. Tord Galelius, Scientific Secretary, The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences:'

One sentence in five short lines!

This overnight wire was addressed to the chemistry department at the University of Toronto. The electronic media had the news before the recipient of the award, who was breakfasting at home when he learned of the honour. I need not detail the hubbub that ensued.

Just let it be said that the invitation to join us today was messengered and laid at a door already heaped with congratulations and invitations. John Charles Polanyi was born in Berlin in 1929. His family moved to England and his father, a scientist and philosopher, Michael Polanyi, became head of physical chemistry at the University of Manchester, from which his son received his doctorate in 1952. Postgraduate work followed at the National Research Council and at Princeton. Then, 30 years ago, Prof. Polanyi joined U of T and made Toronto his home base. Incidentally, this was not his first visit to this city. From 1940 to 1943, young John was a war guest of the late Dr. Michael Cameron, then chief surgeon at St. Michael's Hospital.

In 1958, when John Polanyi received his first research grant, his dean quipped prophetically "be sure to get the Nobel prize," and as his work progressed, recognition grew. His contributions to understanding the molecular motions in chemical reactions became internationally noted. He is a fellow of the Royal Societies of Canada and of London, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the Pontifical Academy of Rome and he is a Companion of the Order of Canada. He has seven medals from scientific institutions, a dozen honorary degrees, and is a founding Chairman of the Canadian Pugwash Group. He is the co-editor of a book, The Dangers of Nuclear War.

We are delighted to welcome his family here today, his wife Sue, at this table, and in the audience, his daughter Margaret, a reporter with The Globe and Mail. His son Michael is attending a lecture at U of T, and can't skip that. And now, the fourth Canadian Nobel winner, Professor John Charles Polanyi.

John C. Polanyi

All honours pale into insignificance in comparison with that of being invited to address the joint membership of The

Empire and Canadian Clubs.

The Empire Club's president, Nona Macdonald, has been most helpful in advising me about the subject matter of this talk. After canvassing the membership, she has told me that people would like to get an idea of the research that I have been involved in, my views of the nature of scientific discovery, comments on the state of science in Canada and the health of our universities, and, of course, a discussion of global problems of peace and security. Apart from this, I am free to talk about anything that I wish.

I had better get started.

When I arrived at the University of Toronto in the summer of 1956 I had a Ph.D. from Manchester University and four years of postdoctoral research experience on this continent. I was given a one-year trial appointment as a lecturer before going on to a further three-year probation as an assistant professor. At that stage, eight years beyond my Ph.D., I achieved the much-vexed status of tenure; I could only be fired thereafter for failure to perform my duties, or if my employer ran out of funds.

My job was to teach undergraduates, to teach graduate students, and to do some research. I knew what I wanted to do in my research. I wanted to discover something about the pattern of molecular motions that lead to chemical reaction. This field of study has become known as "reaction dynamics."

I wanted to do this in the first place because I knew that the question was of fundamental importance, and I sensed (in, common with a number of other scientists) that the moment was opportune for what is popularly known as a breakthrough in this area.

I had no thought of any application of this new knowledge-if it could be obtained-nor did anyone ask me to justify my work in this fashion. The assumption at that date was that if the breakthrough in understanding of nature, that is to say in fundamental or basic science, could be achieved, applications would undoubtedly follow. The assumption turned out to be correct.

The important thing was to make a discovery-the bigger the better. For this I had about $2,000 in start-up funds. l knew that the use of crossed beams of reagents was about to revolutionize reaction dynamics. The forerunners of the two great crossed-molecular beam chemists who are the cowinners of this year's prize, had by 1956 pointed the way to that revolution. I knew, however, that it would cost ten times what I had available in order to build a molecular beam machine. I decided to follow a byway, rather than the highway. It is a procedure I have subsequently recommended to beginning scientists in this country, where research strategy is best modelled on that used by Wolfe at the Plains of Abraham. (British General James Wolfe defeated the French defending Quebec in 1759 after scaling a cliff for a surprise attack.)

The department owned a machine for detecting and characterizing the wavelengths of infrared radiation. It was obvious by that stage that, if one could get the conditions right, one should be able to arrange for newly born molecules from a chemical reaction to emit in the infrared. It was not yet so obvious that one would be able to detect the feeble infrared.

If one could do so, the infrared intensity at different wavelengths would tell one what the molecules were doing. Today there are burglar alarms that operate on much the same principle. The most sophisticated can tell the difference between a burglar and a cat.

My first graduate student, Ken Cashion, set up the flow-lines for the rather terrifying reagents, gaseous hydrogen and chlorine, that were to form the hydrogen chloride that, with luck, would emit in the infrared. The laboratory we were offered was a windowless closet that had until then been used by the cleaners to store their mops and buckets.

We needed a continuous high-voltage electric discharge to get the reaction going. With all these hazards plus a large noisy old mechanical pump all crowded into a tiny space, I recall that we got somewhat jumpy by the middle of the night.

Ken Cashion kept an eye on the clock; as an ordained priest, he was required to say mass before the day was done, and in our quarters midnight had a way of slipping by unnoticed.

I won't take you through all the details, but Ken succeeded in observing a weak infrared emission, indicative of high vibrational excitation in the newly formed hydrogen chloride. It took a further decade and the efforts of many devoted and courageous graduate students, like the ten who are here today, to translate this finding into something dependable and informative.

When I referred a moment ago to the graduate students as being courageous, I was not referring to physical courage, but to the quality that allows one to believe in one's judgement in the face of disappointment and widespread skepticism. Intellectual courage is even rarer than physical courage.

I hardly have to tell you that the pursuit of any goal worth achieving involves a high element of risk. The great British scientist Lord Kelvin looking back over his illustrious career intoned:

"One thing stands out above all others in my recollections of a lifetime in research; it is failure." (I quote from memory). It takes a trained and discerning researcher to keep the goal in sight, and to detect evidence of the creeping progress toward it.

Not only must the researcher exhibit these qualities; so also must the sponsor of research. During the crucial fourteen years, prior to our work becoming somewhat established, it was evaluated annually in Ottawa. Fortunately this evaluation was made by those who were themselves currently engaged in research. In arriving at their decisions as to whether to continue the support of our work, and at what level of funding, they followed the advice of leading scientists around the world whom they consulted. The criteria they applied were scientific significance, and evidence of progress toward the goal.

Had they asked whether the research was likely to produce applications and whether those applications would accord with the socio-economic priorities of the day, they would surely have despaired of our work after a few years. They would therefore have killed it by failing to provide the continuity of support necessary in order for us to complete our rather lengthy journey.

It must be evident that I owe the Canadian taxpayer and the departments of Government that administer scientific funding a substantial debt of gratitude. I have indeed been fortunate, and I am very grateful. To this I would add that the overwhelming generosity of Canadians-from First Ministers to janitors-has had the result that there could not possibly be a more satisfying experience than to win this particular prize in this country.

And yet you may know that on the day the bombshell of the prize exploded in my livingroom, when asked by reporters what would be my advice to a talented and ambitious Canadian scientist I replied that I would suggest he go abroad. I did not relish giving that response, but, at this juncture in our scientific history, it is the only answer that I can give. In truth, a talented and ambitious scientist would be unlikely to ask me that question, since the answer would be obvious to him.

Fortunately for us, there are scientists of very high quality who ignore such promptings, and remain here. Canada, let me tell The Empire and Canadian Clubs, is a wonderful country. People want to live here. Scientists, myself among them, are no exception. We should be clear, however, that these individuals live here at a price to their scientific careers that many will not be willing to pay.

We who remain are impoverished by the departure of the others, since the intellectual environment in which one does science is of crucial importance. It is not, I should add, that the numbers leaving are huge. It is just that the marketplace works to ensure that those who leave are often the best.

To remain is to pursue science in the face of two further obstacles: the physical resources in terms of direct research funding and indirect institutional support that we offer to our scientists are a fraction of those available to a similarly talented individual in the United States. (The comparison, of course, makes allowance for differing funding arrangements in the two countries).

I sat on a committee of the Science Council of Canada a few years ago that, after extensive study, came to the conclusion that the individual researcher in this country disposes of about one third of the funds of a similar U.S. scientist. I duly reported this to a weary Minister of State for Science in the Federal Government.

"But that's pretty good," he responded, "given the fact that the U.S. population is ten times ours."

That, I explained, does not mean that scientific discovery is ten times easier here. Funding per researcher must be made comparable. Some day, if we demand it, it will be.

The second jeopardy is more subtle and insidious. It is the constant attempt in this country to make fundamental science responsive to the marketplace.

Because technology needs science, it is tempting to require that scientific projects be justified in terms of the worth of the technology they can be expected to generate. The effect of applying this criterion is, however, to restrict science to developed fields where the links to technology are most evident.

By continually looking for a short-term payoff we disqualify the sort of science that I have been discussing in these remarks: science that attempts to answer fundamental questions, and, having answered them, suggests fundamentally new approaches in the realm of applications.

The barely detectable infrared luminescence that Ken Cashion observed in 1957 led three years later to a suggestion for infrared (IR) lasers-we called "Irasers" because the term "laser" was not yet established. A decade later, the sort of laser we proposed, based on vibrational excitation, had become the most powerful source of infrared radiation in existence. Yet another decade passed before it began to be evident what the market might be for such lasers.

What we see here is the "scientific push," stemming from discovery, creating the opportunity for new technology. "Technological pull" cannot be asked to produce innovative basic science, because the progress of science has its own logic that we ignore at our peril.

Once, however, a discovery emerges, the interacting skills of the engineer and entrepreneur can take over in the next of the risky and demanding stages along the path that leads from research to development. It is not by chance that this is known as R an D, rather than D and R.

I am assured that the business community is well represented in this audience. You have a reputation for being hard-nosed pragmatists, one eye focussed at all times on the bottom line. If that is so, our lives don't differ as much as you may think.

It is true that the bottom line is not the same; l must make discoveries, you must make a profit. It is also true, I hope, that you are better at making a profit than I am at making discoveries (I almost never make a discovery). But, along the way, the forces with which we must contend are similar.

We both live by our wits-a common limitation. To varying degrees we are supported just so long as we gamble and win. You may think that you risk more than we do. You may be right. If you lose, you lose your shirt. As for the academic, he keeps his shirt but forfeits his reputation, his research support, and his ability to do the thing for which he has trained all his life. The gamble is real for him, too.

More interesting still, he gambles within constraints that you will readily recognize. There is an unthinking assumption that the twin tyrants, time and money, that govern your lives, do not rule his. This a superficial view. To be competitive, and my colleagues are competitive in the extreme, a scientist must deliver science that evidences quality and quantity, that falls within the prearranged budget, and that is completed as nearly as possible within the promised time-frame.

The prizes for making a discovery after someone else has already made it are smaller.

You will have no difficulty whatever in translating this into your own lives. I tell this story in order to stress that although we do different things, we do them in very much the same world. The ivory tower does not conceal an opium den.

Here and there in the recesses of academe, it is true that you will find people sleeping. But you will also find, in far larger numbers, people who work hours that are preposterous, because they are determined to do something notable. Many do. Not all, because, as I have insisted, this is a high-risk enterprise.

People ask me about waste in the universities. My reply is that I see more of it today than fifteen years ago. It is the waste of human resources due to underfunding. A device is built by a faculty member that could have been more expeditiously and efficiently bought. Forty professors, supervising one hundred and forty graduate students, are provided with two secretaries. Resources in a nation or province are, I know limited, but we can, I would think, do better in utilizing them.

I have been speaking a good deal about science in Canada, and a little (since I know less) about technology. Both are important to our future. Why do people like me and I am one of many, believe that we in Canada must have both: flourishing science in addition to vigourous technology?

First, because a nation is more than a machine for creating wealth. Science is the glory as well as the terror of mankind. Our respect for ourselves as a people requires that we, as a prosperous and civilized nation, contribute to this central strand in twentieth-century culture.

I am diffident about saying this, but the letters that have come to me from a great number of Canadians give evidence of the desire of people in all walks of life tb see their country actively participate, rather than to be onlookers at the feast of discovery.

Secondly we need to excel in some areas of modern science, so that we can improve our chances of doing the same in technology. We cannot as a nation tinker our way to technological ascendancy. Advances in, say, microcircuitry and genetic engineering, are not achieved by self-educated inventors at a bench in the basement, but by individuals whose skills have been honed in the best scientific environment the world has to offer.

Nor can we afford to depend for scientific understanding exclusively on what is published abroad. To use science well, you must understand it well. To understand it well, you must do it well.

Happily, we need have no doubt that we can.

All of my themes could be illustrated in the realm of nuclear technology. Studies of the atomic nucleus in the mid 1930s were presumed to have no possible application. By the mid 1940s they had led to weapons capable of destroying cities, and by the 1950s to the weapons of today that threaten civilizations.

The revolution in warfare that had been heralded with the appearance on the scene of crossbows, then dynamite and next machine guns, had finally come. No serious person today can be heard to argue that a war between combatants armed with hydrogen bombs could be justified as a means of settling national differences, because following such an event the differences would no longer be of the slightest interest. To allow such weapons to be used would be an act of criminal folly.

The superpowers say they believe this, but it will take more than words for them to convince one another that they do. Actions are needed. The only sort of action likely to convey the message with sufficient clarity is bilateral, verified, nuclear disarmament.

I am not referring to total disarmament, since I do not believe that we can disinvent nuclear weapons to such a degree that we can return to the barbarism of the prenuclear era, in which we slaughtered millions in nonnuclear conflicts. Nuclear disarmament is not a means to make the world safe for conventional warfare. The aspect of the Reykjavik discussions that dealt with abolition of nuclear weapons was in my view posturing.

What was real was the notion that a halving of the level of

nuclear weaponry could create a new political climate in which the danger of a disastrous war by inadvertence would be much diminished. It would be an act unprecedented in history for two nations with profound unresolved differences to agree to set aside a large portion of their weaponry. "Our differences remain," they would be saying, "but we shall, because we must, settle them without resort to such weapons."

It is vital to our future, yours and mine, that the great powers give each other this assurance. Since it is our future that is at stake, we in Canada have not only the right but the duty to urge the parties on toward agreement.

We should, I believe, applaud President Reagan for insisting that meetings be held against a backdrop of contention over such fundamental questions as human rights. This is the real world, and it should be acknowledged as such.

We should, however, take strong exception to U.S. espousal of antimissile defences (the SDI), whose deployment would require an abrogation of the greatest achievement of arms control to date-the 1972 ABM treaty-a treaty that we owe to the far-sightedness of an earlier U.S. administration.

Not only will the SDI undermine existing treaties, it will also make it impossible to negotiate new ones. In referring to the Strategic Defence Initiative, the President has said that it "threatens no one." Reflecting, however, on the possibility of Soviet advances of a similar nature, he has said that, if permitted to occur, they would leave his country with only two options: "surrender or suicide." A shield on one side, far from "threatening no one," is profoundly disturbing to an opponent, who sees his nuclear arsenal being diminished in effectiveness. In effect he is being unilaterally disarmed.

The likelihood that, in the face of this, he will enter into agreements for widespread disarmament is nil.

Mr. Reagan may well be right in believing that fear of the U.S. SDI has helped bring the USSR to the negotiating table. The Soviets assumed, since the U.S. had said as much, that the SDI was actually on the negotiating table. If they find that it is not, they will be forced, for good reasons, to abandon the negotiations. A historic opportunity will have been lost. And for what? It is a dream to suppose that the technology of defense can be so effective, in the face of a determined onslaught, that the attack can be rendered "impotent:" At intervals, this is admitted even by leading SDI proponents. Alternative rationales for retaining SDI are then put forward.

Some would claim that the Soviet Union is using the SDI as an excuse to prevent a disarmament agreement from being reached. They may be right. The only responsible path on the part of the West would be to give way on the SDI-which Sir Geoffrey Howe, Margaret Thatcher's Foreign Secretary, once characterized as "Maginot Line in the sky"-whereupon we would find out whether the USSR wanted disarmament.

I have given you my views on these matters not because I have been elected by The Nobel Foundation to the vacant post of Delphic Oracle. I am a chemist. I talk about these questions of war and peace for the same reason that I have spoken about them for over twenty-five years. They are of overriding importance, and are necessarily the concern of the literate and the numerate in every profession-including your own.

Science and technology have, through the advent of weapons of mass destruction, issued a challenge to mankind: Adapt or perish. Without the vigourous and imaginative involvement of all thoughtful citizens, we cannot hope to make the necessary changes in patterns of thought before disaster overtakes us.

Scientists, engineers, physicians, lawyers, members of the business community, and others with the privilege of education have a special responsibility to read, think and advise. I would urge you, as a duty to the coming generations, to consider how you might become more involved in this vital and urgent debate.

A wise man in China asked his gardener to plant a shrub. The gardener objected that it only flowered once in a hundred years. "In that case," said the wise man, "plant it immediately".

The appreciation of the meeting was expressed by James K. Warrilow, a Senior Vice President of Maclean Hunter Limited, and President of The Canadian Club of Toronto.

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A Scientist and the World He Lives In

A joint meeting of The Empire Club of Canada and The Canadian Club of Toronto.
A brief personal history, including the progress of the speaker's research. The role of his graduate students. Their intellectual courage and what that means. Some discussion of the nature of research. The speaker's regret at the lack of support for research in Canada. Reasons for scientists to work abroad. The dangers of restricting science to developed fields where the links to technology are most evident. Examples of long-term payoffs when science is allowed to attempt to answer fundamental questions and, having answered them, suggests fundamentally new approaches in the realm of applications. Waste at universities of human resources due to underfunding. Why Canada needs both flourishing science in addition to vigorous technology. An illustration of the themes addressed in the field of nuclear technology. The reduction in arms debate and SDI. The challenge to mankind made by science and technology, through the advent of weapons of mass destruction.