John Polanyi

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Berlin, Germany
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Berlin, Germany

John Charles Polanyi is a well-known Hungarian-Canadian chemist and teacher. In 1986, he shared the Nobel Prize for Chemistry with Dudley R. Herschbach and Yuan T. Lee “for their contributions to the dynamics of chemical elementary processes.” He was born in Germany to a family of Hungarian immigrants, but he grew up in England. He went to Manchester University and got his Ph.D. there in 1952. After getting his Ph.D., he did research at the National Research Council in Canada and at Princeton University in New Jersey. Four years later, he joined the University of Toronto’s faculty, and in 1974, he was named University Professor. He is best known for creating a method called “infrared chemiluminescence.” This method is based on the idea that when molecules are excited, they give off infrared light. By looking at how the light changes during a chemical reaction with a spectrometer, he was able to track the exchange of chemical bonds. This helped him figure out how excess energy is lost during a chemical reaction. In addition to the prestigious Nobel Prize, he has won many other awards, such as the Wolf Prize in Chemistry, the Royal Medal, the Henry Marshall Tory Medal, etc. In public, he often says what he thinks about how the government handles science and nuclear weapons.

Early years and childhood

John Polanyi was born on January 23, 1929, in Berlin, Germany. His parents, Michael and Magda Elizabeth Polanyi, were Hungarians who had moved there as refugees. Michael was a famous chemist and philosopher who did groundbreaking work on how chemical reactions happen.

There were also other smart people in his family. Mihaly Pollack, his grandfather, was a successful railway builder, and Karl Pollacsek, his uncle, was one of the best economists of his time. His grandmother was also a smart person who did a lot.

His father was born Jewish, but he became a Catholic later in life. So, when Adolf Hitler started doing bad things to Jews in 1933, his family moved to Britain.

World War II had already started when John was 11 years old. His father sent him to Toronto, Canada, for three years so that he wouldn’t be hurt by German bombs. He went to school at the University of Toronto Schools while he was living in Toronto.

When he got back to Britain, he finished high school and went to Manchester University in 1946. In 1949, he got his bachelor’s degree, and in 1952, he got his Ph.D. in Chemistry. His research was about figuring out how strong chemical bonds are in substances that have been heated to very high temperatures.

John Polanyi’s Career

After getting his Ph.D. in 1952, he went to work for the National Research Council in Ottawa, Ontario, to do research after he finished his Ph.D. During that time, he worked with E.W.R. Steacie and spent a short time in the lab of Gerhard Herzberg, who would later win the Nobel Prize.

In 1954, he started working as a research assistant at Princeton University. In 1956, he went back to Canada and started teaching chemistry at the University of Toronto.

He kept getting better at teaching, and in 1957, he was given the title of Assistant Professor. In 1960, he was given the title of Associate Professor, and in 1962, he was given the title of full Professor. In 1974, he was given the title of University Professor, which he still has today.

In 1958, Polanyi and Kenneth Cashion, one of his graduate students, published the first results of their research on infrared “chemiluminescence” (the emanation of light by an atom or molecule that is in an energized condition).

By measuring this very weak emission, the quantum mechanical energy state of the molecules could be found and the reaction could be mapped out. This made it easier to build a “vibrating” laser, which made important advances in science and medicine.

His discoveries also opened the door to a new way of studying how chemical reactions work. His work was mostly about how to use “spectroscopy” (the science that deals with the study of the light spectrum).

Since 1953, when he first put out a paper about his scientific research, he has put out more than 250 more. Aside from this, he has talked and written a lot about science policy, the control of weapons, and how to keep international peace.

In 1970, he made the movie “Concepts in Reaction Dynamics” and helped put together the book “The Dangers of Nuclear War.”

Works of note

Chemical kinetics is what John Polanyi is known for. He came up with the method of infrared chemiluminescence, which was used to measure the weak infrared emissions from a newly formed molecule in order to study how energy is lost during a chemical reaction.

Awards & Achievements

John Polanyi, Dudley R. Herschbach, and Yuan T. Lee all got the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1986 “for their contributions to the study of the dynamics of chemical elementary processes.”

He is a member of three Royal Societies: the Royal Societies of Canada, the Royal Societies of London, and the Royal Societies of Edinburgh. He is a part of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the Russian Academy of Sciences, and the Pontifical Academy of Rome.

He was a big part of making the Committee on Scholarly Freedom of the Royal Society and the Canadian Committee for Scientists and Scholars, which is an organization for human rights and whose President he is, happen.

Personal History and Legacies

John Polanyi got married to Anne Ferrar Davidson in the year 1958. He has a daughter named Margaret, who was born in 1961 and is a journalist. His son, Michael, was born in 1963 and is a physicist who is now a political scientist. Anne died in 2013. Polanyi is now married to Brenda Bury, a portrait artist.

He is also interested in the arts, literature, and poetry, in addition to science and politics. He loved whitewater canoeing when he was younger, but later he switched to walking and skiing.

As a way to honor his Nobel Prize, the Ontario government made the “John Charles Polanyi Prizes.” Each prize is worth $20,000 and is given to young postdoctoral scholars or new faculty members at Ontario University in the fields of physics, chemistry, medicine, economics, and literature.

The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) made the John C. Polanyi Award honor researchers whose work in an NSERC-supported field led to a lot of progress.

Estimated Net worth

John Charles Polanyi is thought to have a net worth of $1 million. His main sources of income are as a university professor, chemist, and physicist. We don’t know enough about John Charles Polanyi’s home life or his car habits to say much about them.


After he finished high school, he thought for a short time about becoming a poet.