New exhibit celebrates U of T chemist John Polanyi's Nobel Prize-winning work in reaction dynamics

May 27, 2024 by A&S News

The pioneering work of University of Toronto chemist John Polanyi is the focus of a new exhibit permanently installed at the Lash Miller Building, home of the Department of Chemistry in the Faculty of Arts & Science.

Through still images, video and equipment, the dynamic exhibit tells the story of Polanyi's esteemed career, including his key discovery in the field of reaction dynamics — a branch of chemistry that investigates what happens during chemical reactions. His groundbreaking work has influenced the development of advanced instrumentation in domains like pharmaceutical research, medicine and chemical manufacturing — including the development of the first chemical lasers.

John Polanyi, Mark Lautens, Brenda Bury and Robert Batey.
University Professor Emeritus John Polanyi (pictured second from the right) was joined in viewing the exhibit by (l to r) Department of Chemistry chair Mark Lautens; the portrait painter Brenda Bury; and former Department of Chemistry chair Robert Batey.

Polanyi came to the University of Toronto, from Princeton University in 1956, and not long after made his seminal discovery. His detection of infrared radiation released upon the collision of hydrogen and chloride molecules was the first observation of energy produced from the vibration of new molecules immediately after their formation.

“The university made a significant investment in me, a young scholar,” says Polanyi. “The environment and the resources I received enabled me to pursue a new and unknown direction in chemical physics.”

Polanyi was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1986. In the display, alongside a replica of Polanyi’s Nobel Prize medal, is original equipment used in his early research, a reproduction of the lab notebook used by his graduate student to document their experiments, and a video chronicling the process of discovery.

“John Polanyi holds a revered place in the history of the University of Toronto and his legacy is an inspiration for all of us,” says U of T President Meric Gertler. “This installation is a compelling expression of his achievements. All those responsible deserve our thanks and congratulations.”

A glass case featuring John Polanyi's accomplishements.
The exhibit tells the story of the Nobel prize-winning discovery in the field of reaction dynamics, and University Professor Emeritus John Polanyi’s advocacy for nuclear disarmament and the responsible use of science.

Inspiration for the exhibit came after Polanyi donated some of his equipment to the Department of Chemistry upon his retirement in 2020. A special celebration was held in his honour at Massey College in the fall of 2022, after which Professor Rob Batey, then department chair, with support from Arts & Science Dean Melanie Woodin, and the Offices of the President and the Vice-President, Research & Innovation, led the development of the exhibit to celebrate Polanyi’s immense impact and create a lasting imprint of his legacy.

Nobel Prize in Chemistry medal awarded to Polanyi and picture for when this was received.
The centrepiece of the exhibit is a replica of the 1986 Nobel Prize in Chemistry medal awarded to Polanyi.

“John has made tremendous contributions to the world of science as well as society at large through his advocacy for nuclear disarmament," says Batey. "We are proud to be able to celebrate his work this way in the place that has been his professional home for so many years.”

The chemistry department and the Toronto-based communications and design firm Snack worked closely with Polanyi on the development of the display, drawing from his extensive archive of memorabilia and donated equipment. Upon seeing the final product, Polanyi was impressed and reflected on the many people who influenced his work.

"It’s been my good fortune to be surrounded by brilliant colleagues and other supporters throughout my life and career," says Polanyi. "I'm deeply humbled and grateful for this marvelous display and ongoing recognition of my life’s work.”

The exhibit also captures Polanyi’s advocacy for the responsible use of science and a keen social conscience that has compelled him to campaign for the elimination of nuclear weapons throughout his career.

For Woodin, the exhibit is another reminder of Polanyi’s profound impact on students as a wise and thoughtful mentor, patient teacher and remarkable visionary, and on faculty and colleagues as an influential leader, passionate researcher and esteemed collaborator.

“This display is a fantastic tribute to Professor Polanyi's remarkable career as a scientist, a teacher and a global citizen,” says Woodin. “It is a fitting acknowledgement for someone who has engendered a network of excellence that stretches across countries and continents.”

Polanyi’s passion and dedication and the enduring recognition for his accomplishments spans decades. In 1974, he was named a University Professor — the highest academic honour bestowed by the university on its faculty members – and in 1994 the John C. Polanyi Chair in Chemistry was established. In tandem with this new exhibit, the Department of Chemistry also recently renamed the research wing of the Lash Miller Building in his honour. Other accolades outside the university are numerous, including the annual John Charles Polanyi Prizes, sponsored by the Government of Ontario, and the national John C. Polanyi Award of the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

“The John Polanyi research wing and this new display will serve to permanently highlight John's legacy for current and future young scholars,” says Department of Chemistry chair Professor Mark Lautens. “John has brought great visibility and prestige to the University of Toronto through his groundbreaking studies and his contributions that go well beyond scientific discovery. We are equally grateful and proud of his advocacy for science, for peace and for a better world.”

A notebook.
The exhibit includes a reproduction of the notebook in which Polanyi’s graduate student Ken Cashion documented the results of the experiment that delivered the groundbreaking discovery.

Polanyi continues to influence the next generation. He still gives occasional talks within the department, and remains a trusted voice in the media, including a recent opinion piece in the Globe and Mail. In this age of artificial intelligence, amid devastating wars raging worldwide, Polanyi’s belief and dedication to the pursuit of responsible science is more powerful than ever, as is his message to us all that, “A great university that invests in science must also strain to warn of the accompanying risks to humanity.”