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NSERC Prizes - Polanyi

Interview with Dr. Polanyi

"Ask questions that are worth asking,
and stretch yourself to the limit..."

October 2005

Next year will mark half a century of financial support for Professor Polanyi's research by NSERC and its predecessor organization. It's a career that includes his post-war studies at the University of Manchester, work with Canada 's leading chemists in the early 1950s, his involvement in founding the field of reaction dynamics and, in 2004, producing landmark nanotechnology research.

What are the ingredients for scientific success? Dr. Polanyi, Nobel Laureate, has a unique perspective. On the eve of the announcement of NSERC's Polanyi  Award, the noted scientist reflected on the roles of technology, judgement, persistence, and cross-disciplinary research in scientific success.

Q: How much of your day do you spend thinking about physical chemistry?

A: I don't think I ever stop. It's just that there are burners that are at the front and you notice those explicitly, and then there are those in the middle and at the back. But the stove's on all the time.

Q: How is the practice of science different today from the time in the first half of the century when your father, Michael Polanyi, was a chemist at the University of Manchester? For example, there seems to be more emphasis today on cross-disciplinary research.

A: These changes are often more apparent than real. There's always this cross-fertilization going on. It's just that the traffic is in new directions. I don't think you really need to organize scientists to cross interdisciplinary boundaries, because if they are adventurous souls then they're crashing across boundaries all the time; and if they're not, then they're not exciting scientists.

I was always impressed to hear of the breadth of expertise of the people who'd turn up for my father's lectures and he for theirs. At that time, there was a lot of traffic between physics and chemistry. Albert Einstein once in a while turned up to hear my father give a talk on chemistry.

I was pleased when, by chance, Stephen Hawking turned up at a lecture that I gave. More to the point, people are delighted when biologists turn up to hear theoretical chemists–and they do.

Q: What are the major barriers to scientific discovery and success today?

A: It is an interesting question—whether anything has changed in that regard. I can't see any change. Everybody is reliant on their scientific judgement. You can't be too timid. You've got to ask questions that are worth asking, and stretch yourself to the limit, but not beyond. There are no explicit rules guiding scientific judgement—you have to learn it from someone who has the quality. That's how we all learned it in the past, and that's how we all learn it today— we fight to get into the best laboratories.

Q: What about the role of personal determination to supplement this judgement? How did you respond when in 1959 your seminal paper providing the first theoretical description of chemical lasers was rejected by the prestigious journal Physical Review Letters?

A: That experience is one that all ambitious scientists have. There are two reasons for having a paper rejected—either it's no good or it's too new. One has to teach one's students that if you have a new idea, don't expect the world of science to embrace it right away. It's as if science has an immune system and rejects new tissue. And it has to; otherwise, it would have a leg sticking out of its head. You're going to be tested when you suggest anything new.

When my paper was refused I was actually very inexperienced. I thought, well, that's a really good journal and if they turn it down it must be boring. And then I read in the New York Times about Ted Maiman at Hughes Research Labs, who had produced the first laser that actually worked. He had sent his paper to the same journal and had received the same rejection slip, saying lasers were of no scientific interest. I thought, "Maybe what I'd said wasn't so bad." So my judgement was all over the place. I actually believed them when they turned it down.

Q: How important has high-performance computing been to your work? It's something that's not often mentioned and yet seems to have played a central part.

A: It did and it does. It may be a bit of illusion we all have in science—to be born at such a terrific moment, because along come the tools you need in order to do the task that you've set yourself. The two tools that I needed were a sensitive detector of infrared energy and computers. The detector came through the military, through sidewinder missiles— horrible things that seek- out jet engines and disappear inside them and blow up. Those detectors were hugely important in letting us see infrared emission.

So then we knew a little about the colours emitted by newly born chemical reaction products. The next question was, so what? What do the colours tell you about how the reaction occurs? And the only way to solve that was to more or less make a movie of the various categories of choreography that could occur in reactions, and what colours of emission they would produce. To make that logical link, we had to simulate the bouncing of atoms and molecules in chemical reactions, and just at that time computers came on the scene.

They were actually being born at Manchester University when I was a graduate student there. Alan Turing was a friend. So I was conscious of him, and also Douglas Hartree at Manchester University, labouring away producing the first gigantic computers.

Using early computers we created hordes of reaction trajectories, and began theorizing about what kinds of reactions would produce redder radiation and which would emit bluer.

Without the computer it would have been bad science because it's no good collecting data that doesn't tell a story.

Q: You've also said that the scanning tunnelling microscope has been central to your more recent study of reaction dynamics between gases and solid surfaces.

A: Yes. I feel very fortunate to be still doing science when there has again been a technical revolution of the first rank.

I learned about it when I went to Stockholm in 1986, because the chemists won the Nobel Prize for reaction dynamics and the physicists won it for scanning tunnelling microscopy, which had just come to maturity as a technology.

So at Stockholm I did some interdisciplinary work and went to listen to what the physicists had to say. Indeed, one of the physicists who had won—we talk about how obsessive science is—met me coming out of the lecture theatre and said "What are you doing here?" These guys subsequently transformed my scientific life by allowing me to probe reaction dynamics atom by atom. I used to just measure the colours of light coming out or reactions. But now with the aid of the STM you can see the reagent; you can tickle it with light or electrons; you can then see the products and how far away they are from the reagents and in what direction they went. It's a reaction dynamicist's dream.

Q: Your most recent work has involved extending the practical value of self-assembling molecules by finding a way to glue them permanently to a surface. Concern has been expressed that these self-assembling nanomolecules might in future escape and do harm. What is the scientist's social responsibility to the future of his or her scientific discovery?

A: This sense of social responsibility is something I've grown up with. It didn't come on me with the mantle of a particular prize. I first went to a high-level international meeting on arms control in 1960, and then to subsequent meetings that laid the groundwork for the ABM (Anti-Ballistic Missile) treaty. So I've always felt that was part of my life, and welcomed it. Even though I like disappearing into the scientific monastery, I also like escaping from it. To be with those who have some sense of where history is taking us, and a sense that we might actually do something about it is very inspiring. It makes life more meaningful.

But, I would phrase the question of a scientist's social responsibility differently. When I went to that meeting I hadn't contributed to nuclear weapons, nor had I contributed to ABM technology. The irony is that the film runs in reverse. Later, in about 1983 during Reagan's presidency, when the ABM treaty was under duress and the Star Wars program was the order of the day, the first line of ballistic missile defence was to be chemical lasers based on the molecules we'd studied at the University of Toronto. So, first came my profound involvement in what you call social responsibility. Then oddly, just by chance, the very science that I'd contributed was trotted out as a solution by those on the wrong side of the debate.

The point I want to make is that the responsibility of a scientist derives from a sort of literacy that we have. And it isn't that I discovered this or that, and therefore that I feel particularly responsible for anything associated with it. I don't think it's like that. Any folly that is understandable to someone who is scientifically literate, they should warn against.