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NSERC prizes - Polanyi

About the scientist

John Charles Polanyi

John Charles Polanyi was born in 1929 to Hungarian parents who moved their family to England in 1933. Dr. Polanyi trained at Manchester University, where he received his BSc and, in 1952, his PhD.

From 1952 to 1954, he was a postdoctoral fellow at the National Research Council Canada Laboratories in Ottawa; and from 1954 to 1956, he was a Research Associate at Princeton University. In 1956, Dr. Polanyi began teaching chemistry at the University of Toronto, where he is still an active faculty member. His research is on the molecular motions in chemical reactions in gases and at surfaces.

Dr. Polanyi made Canada proud when he won the 1986 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, alongside his fellow researchers, Drs. Dudley R. Herschbach, Harvard University and Yuan T. Lee, University of California at Berkeley. Thirty years prior, Dr. Polanyi had begun his ground-breaking work documenting the energy status and movements of molecules at the very moment of chemical reaction. Through his astonishing molecular beam and infrared chemiluminescence experiments, he clarified chemical dynamics right down to the level of atoms and molecules. Not only have his discoveries dramatically advanced the understanding of the physics of chemical reactions, but they have also led to the development of powerful new lasers. Today, Dr. Polanyi is contributing his expertise to several areas of research, most notably in nanotechnology.

His awards include the Royal Medal of the Royal Society of London and some 30 honorary degrees from six countries.

Dr. Polanyi is a Fellow of the Royal Societies of Canada, London and Edinburgh, and of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the Pontifical Academy of Rome and the Russian Academy of Sciences. Dr. Polanyi is also a member of the Queen's Privy Council for Canada, and a Companion of the Order of Canada.

Dr. Polanyi has served on the Prime Minister of Canada's Advisory Board on Science and Technology and the Premier's Council of Ontario. He has also served as Foreign Honorary Advisor to the Institute for Molecular Sciences, Japan; as Honorary Advisor to the Max Planck Institute for Quantum Optics, Germany; and on the Board of the Steacie Institute for Molecular Sciences, Canada.

Dr. Polanyi's brilliance in science is complemented by a wide range of interests and a keen social conscience. He is a founding member of both the Committee on Scholarly Freedom of the Royal Society and the Canadian Committee for Scientists and Scholars, a human rights organization of which he is President.

Dr. Polanyi has been active for 40 years in International Pugwash, a global movement of scientists and others with a professional concern about the social impact of science and seeking ways to prevent its misuse. He helped to found the Canadian Pugwash Group in 1960, serving as its first chairman. Dr. Polanyi has written extensively on science policy, the control of armaments and peacekeeping. He co-edited The Dangers of Nuclear War, and participated in the Canada 21 study of a 21st-century defence posture for Canada. He co-chaired the Department of Foreign Affairs International Consultative Committee on a Rapid Response Capability for the United Nations.

The NSERC John C. Polanyi Award celebrates the research excellence exemplified by Dr. Polanyi during his remarkable career as well as the outstanding contributions he continues to make to science and society.