Ronald G.W. Norrish

Banquet speech

Ronald G.W. Norrish’s speech at the Nobel Banquet in Stockholm, December 10, 1967

Your Majesty, Your Royal Highnesses, Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen:

As one who was brought up in the old tradition of chemical teaching when such names as Scheele, Priestly, Lavoisier, Berzelius and Liebig stood out as beacon lights along the road of our progress in chemical learning, Stockholm and Uppsala have always beckoned to me as Mecca beckons to the faithful. I little thought to make my pilgrimage under such auspices as bring me here today, and I give thanks to the Nobel Foundation and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for this recognition of the work for which this Nobel award is made. I thank them also for the possibility of bringing our families to take part in this brilliant and never-to-be-forgotten ceremony.

If I may speak of myself in retrospect, I must remember my father, who as a pharmacist at Cambridge in the years before the first world war inspired me with a love of chemistry. He helped and encouraged me to make a laboratory in which as a school boy I repeated some of the experiments of the early teachers, and more than once nearly came to grief. It was there that I conceived a love for the smells of chemistry, and experienced the excitement of chemical analysis. The nostalgia of those smells has never left me, and memories of those dear departed days are kindled again whenever I enter a truly chemical laboratory. In retrospect also, I think of those who have helped to keep my little flame alight, and to pass it now to those who follow.

When I think of Sweden and the chemistry that I learned to love, I think of Scheele, who with the help of a mistaken theory first discovered oxygen and chlorine, and by his work gave the first indication of the rich harvest to be reaped by the investigation of the compounds of organic and animal chemistry. I think of one of the great masters of all time, Berzelius, making his first footsteps in chemistry thirty years after Scheele’s premature death, repeating the experiment of making oxygen in the closet of his living room. I think of his “moment of pure inner delight”, when the glowing splint burst into brilliant flame. Truly a torch was lit that day which was to illumine the world of chemistry, to give us the basis of our modern understanding. Berzelius gave order to everything he touched and in those early days welded into one grand and coherent discipline the scattered facts and theories of chemistry – mineral chemistry, psychical chemistry, organic chemistry, and biochemistry. He gave to us the basic methods of analysis which made chemistry an exact science, and endowed us with the pregnant ideas of isomerism and catalysis. Gathered round Berzelius were workers from other lands who went forth to spread his knowledge abroad; throughout his long career he had more influence in the pattern and spirit of chemical thought than any other person living at the time. After Berzelius I think of Arrhenius. In coupling his brilliant intellect with the emerging facts of electrochemistry, he carried forward the work of Berzelius and forged the theory of electrolytic dissociation. In discerning the meaning of activation he laid the foundation of reaction kinetics. Truly a proud record.

Your Majesty, these men and all those who worked beside them in exposing the richness of your mineral heritage, have made Sweden great in the realm of chemistry and industry, and in paying tribute to their memory I pay tribute also to the memory of Alfred Nobel, and to the undiminished greatness of your country today. Long may it prosper.

Ronald G. W. Norrish’s Address to the University Students on the Evening of December 10, 1967

Dear Student Friends:

The honour of speaking to you falls upon me because I am the oldest laureate, not because of any reluctance on the part of my comrades. It is that which makes it the more difficult for me; for the young are bound to be impatient with the old, and the old do not always appreciate the point of view of the young. Can generation speak to generation across the years? Sometimes I think it can, but the progress of intellectual thought is not smooth. It may follow a winding course as through an uncharted forest, emerging now and then into a sudden burst of sunlight, but often becoming lost and sorely troubled, not seeing the great wood itself because there are so many trees.

In our case however, I think we can take heart from the good-will that strengthens all men of good intent. We can take heart because we represent the forefront of human endeavour – we and all our brothers and sisters in places of learning throughout the world. We are the spearpoint of that mysterious force of evolution which has brought consciousness to life on earth – consciousness that has made it possible for us to extrapolate in time and space, and however feebly, to discern something of the great mystery of the universe around us.

We should dwell on this thought. It means that consciousness is not a property located solely in the individual, but rather that it is an emergent property of the collective race of mankind, and that it is potentially present in all forms of life from which we have evolved, down to the most simple. It means that consciousness is a property of the universe which has given us birth and which therefore may be said to have god-like attributes to which we cleave and which make us infinitesimally part of God. If I may paraphrase, there are more things in heaven and earth, Ladies and Gentlemen, than are dreamed of in our philosophy.

Let us follow the implications of this line of thought so far as it affects us. It means that intellectually we cannot exist alone; each depends for the progress of his thought upon those who went before and those who work beside him. It means that ultimately our world could be unified by the intellect and not destroyed by the sword, and that if wisdom and understanding prevail in the conduct of our life processes and our communal affairs, we may veritably reach for the stars. At least, my friends, I say let us try. Let us seek that friendship and understanding with all the races of mankind which comes of intellectual intercourse both scientific and humanistic, and which transcends all those petty racial and nationalistic fears and taboos which threaten to destroy us – to destroy us just as we are seeing the sunshine through the trees.

We must all work; each must find the right work according to his talents – let us therefore work together.

I finish this “sermon” to you, my brother and sister students, with apologies and thanks for your attention, and end on a lighter note with a short story about the great Scottish writer, poet and novelist, Sir Walter Scott.

Towards the close of his life he was prevailed upon to visit his old school and to listen to a lesson in English (or Scottish) with which he was well satisfied. At the end, he turned to the teacher and said, “Now tell me, Domine, which one is the bottom boy of the class?” The teacher sprang into action; “McPherson, come here!” Poor McPherson came forward with trepidation; he thought he was in for another beating. Sir Walter Scott looked sternly at the boy for some time, then smilingly he held out his hand and said, “Shake, McPherson, here’s five shillings for keeping my seat warm!”

Perhaps after all the old can sometimes speak to the young.

Mr. President, I thank you for the kind words of congratulation with which you have welcomed us on behalf of the students, and in the name of my fellow laureates and myself wish you all, all the best of luck and happiness in the future, that future which belongs to you.

From Les Prix Nobel en 1967, Editor Ragnar Granit, [Nobel Foundation], Stockholm, 1968

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1967

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