John C. Polanyi


Interview, June 2000

Interview with John Polanyi by Sture Forsén at the meeting of Nobel Laureates in Lindau, Germany, June 2000.

John Polanyi talks about his family background; creative environments (1:55); interdisciplinary science, and the risk of industrial support to science (6:49); interest in science policy (14:06); and the responsibilities scientists have in trying to improve the world (17:57).

Transcript of the interview

I’m very pleased to have an opportunity to interview you, John Polanyi, at the Lindau meeting of the Nobel prize winners this 50-year anniversary. And John, you have a family background that I think is slightly unusual from other Laureates I’ve interviewed. Your father was a very famous physical chemist.

John Polanyi: I think that’s splendidly understated. I have an odd bunch of relatives. It wasn’t just my father. I mean my uncle, both uncles were intellectual types as was my father. And they spread themselves over political views and over subject areas from economics to politics to science to philosophy. And my father was both a chemist and a very ambitious philosopher, I think. He felt his major work was in philosophy though I was very impressed by his work as a chemist. So, all these influences helped me, stimulated me, amused me, encouraged me.

Not overwhelmed you?

John Polanyi: Oddly enough yes, because these people were very bright, and I don’t think I was that bright. But I enjoyed it all so much that I thought well, whatever I can do I’m happy with. So, I wasn’t overwhelmed, no.

To me it’s also striking how many scientists of Hungarian background are among the Nobel Laureates.

John Polanyi: Yes.

Is there an explanation? It cannot be a statistical fluke, I believe.

John Polanyi: I think so, yes. Hungarians tend to go abroad, tend to make a lot of noise and are very good at ping pong and winning Nobel Prizes.

Today we have had a session, a round table session on the creative environment and creativity in science. There were many views expressed there on how to best accomplish a creative environment. Would you like to comment, and how would you like to …, what is your, the elements of a creative environment?

John Polanyi: Gosh. I mean that was a very free ranging discussion today which covered all the things that we tend to chat about in the evening as scientists when we’re exhausted. And I wouldn’t dare to try to summarise the elements in it. I think probably the most stressed thing at the round table, and rightly so, was the need to have freedom in order that you can be opportunistic. Because you cannot make plans in science and then doggedly follow them. If you do that’s really a prescription for disaster.

Actually I once sat on a committee which was required to examine the progress of a group of scientists who formed the team, and we were supposed to see that they had followed the plan that they presented in order to get the money to do the research. And I said well, all right, I’ll do it, but only with one stipulation, that if they follow their plan, then we’ll not give them any more funds because clearly, they didn’t discover anything. And so, people were rather shocked. But this had a really rather serious aspect to it as far as I was concerned. I think that the freedom of scientists to pursue discoveries where nature gives an opportunity for learning something, that freedom is being more and more restricted.

And it’s understandable that in well-functioning democracies people want to see accountability. But then they go and introduce a form of accountancy which is inappropriate and damaging and they say, well the sort of thing I just said in that story. They say tell us what you’re going to discover, tell us what those discoveries will, how they will benefit mankind, how they will create prosperity. And this involves scientists in either saying well, that’s inappropriate which is dangerous because you don’t get the funds. And so we start telling these stories and they’re not really true stories, they’re sophisticated sort of science fiction. And when you start to lie about the way in which science is done and the justification for doing it, eventually these things come back to haunt you and people say well, where is the application that you said would come, and in fact it will come. If you put intellectual power into people’s minds that can be used for good and for ill, it’s partly our job to see that it’s used for good. But it can certainly be used.

The irony of course is that as a scientist one has to face two different groups of people, one of whom are very concerned that you are taking public money, you’re disappearing into your laboratory and then you are amusing yourself by learning something about nature perhaps. And then there’s another group of people who see you taking public money, disappearing into your laboratory and they say each time you go into the laboratory you come out with something terrible. And you produce opportunities which we don’t know how to handle, you’re making the world a very dangerous place. Well, you can’t have it both ways, that we are spending our time futilely indulging our curiosity and at the same time we are revolutionising practice to a degree that nobody can handle it.

So which is true? I would say the second is true. So long as you are willing, this was a term used around the round table this morning, as long as you are willing to trust the scientists, and you don’t have to trust them very far, you have to trust them for three years, four years, five years, and then you have to say what did you do? And that’s legitimate. And you have to be tough about it.

But judge them on the basis of their ability to add to the store of human knowledge in a way that’s going to make a difference to people’s thinking. If you do that, you’ll get new ideas and you’ll get them in a cost-effective way. And the problem really lies not with good scientists frittering their time away and wasting people’s money, it comes later with the fact that indeed the discoveries will be made but then we have to somehow decide how to use them. We, not just we scientists, but we human beings.

Let’s turn for a while to university education. I find, at least in my country, that it’s still very sort of conservative in the sense that there is chemistry, there is physics and there’s biology, and to me it seems that the borderlines between the subjects are so fussy today that we might perhaps need to reconsider some of our education systems. Have you had any thoughts about that?

John Polanyi: I’m not sure I caught your thought and I’m not sure I’m going to respond in an interesting way to it. You’re talking about the division between subject areas?


John Polanyi: I don’t think that my thoughts on that are worth recording. I don’t see it as a new obstacle. I think that any enterprising scientist right away tries to jump over those alleged boundaries and realises the value of doing it. And if I had a fear in that connection it would be that people who try to micromanage science sometimes say well, we’ll give a grant to him because his work or her work is more inter-disciplinary, and this is less inter-disciplinary. Well, these sort of easy criteria of worth are very misleading, and to support science on stylistic grounds, to say this is good science because it involves a team, or this is good science because it is inter-disciplinary or this is good science because it involves networking, or a good management structure. I mean these are all peripherals. The quality of good science is A are you going to succeed, and B will it matter if you do, will it change anybody’s thinking or better still will it change a lot of people’s thinking. And so, these criteria … I don’t think we are in danger from the fact that we are being bludgeoned into staying within our discipline, no. I see a lot greater dangers than that.

Like for example?

John Polanyi: Like attempts to support science on the basis of their likely contribution to wealth and if that is done lightly in the sense that well here’s a broad field which might reasonably contribute to the building of molecular scale electronic circuitry. Well then, it’s a reasonable thing to do though one shouldn’t do it to excess because there will be areas which are important that one misses. But it goes much further than that and I think particularly in countries which are less sophisticated, less accustomed to dealing with science, and I would say my country is one of that sort, Canada, where the history of science is not long and rich and so on. And in Canada as I would guess in a number of other countries the notion has arisen that the way to get value for the tax payer for money put into science, is to validate each investment in university research by requiring that a matching portion of money come from industry.

And this sounds very plausible when you say it because industry after all knows where money is to be made, industry will see to it then that the university research occurs on topics that are going to make people rich. But it’s a very misguided thing to do. First of all it means that the time horizons for which people do research are much too short, because industries, if they are required to put cash into it, not just nice words, cash, then industry wants to see results in two to three years which might conceivably contribute to their profits. So you find yourself doing industry’s research and doing it not as well as they would do it because they really understand the market. You don’t, you just pretend to. Worse than that you find yourself doing patchwork of science and the strength of university science is, as I think the name implies, a certain universality, a certain breadth, an inter-connectedness therefore of things, not a patchwork quilt in which you do this for three years because it will benefit that country, company, and then you do this for three years because it will benefit that one. And so we lose the narrative power of university research, we lose the breadth, which is precisely the thing that industry values and should value.

So I regard this as being against the interests of industry and I will add one third thing which stems from this mistaken policy, and it’s equally serious, and not yet properly understood. And that is that if the researcher is beholden to, linked financially to a particular industry, then let’s take a happy situation in which the researcher working on something of interest to that industry comes up with the fact that what they’re doing is just marvellous and the product is excellent and just needs a little improvement. Who’s going to believe the university person? They were paid to say that. But of course if they say the opposite, which also happens, that it is dangerous, it is bad for the environment, it’s bad for the individual and all that, are they going to dare say that because the company will do everything to prevent them from saying it. That’s normal. So those links destroy the independence which we look for in our universities.

Would we as scientists have been too complacent about the changes that we have seen, about the requirements from governments that we should be more applied?

John Polanyi: I think that’s a very good question. I think the scientists are much too complacent and there are a whole lot of reasons for that. I mean one being that scientists want to be left alone to do science and if you start fighting battles of science policy you of course take large amounts of your time away from research. But there’s another reason and that is that biting the hand that feeds you is not encouraged, and it may be punished. And so people are loath to do that, not just for themselves, for their colleagues. You know, if I say this scheme which is actually helping your research and helping mine, but it’s a badly funded scheme because it just doesn’t take account of the fact that university research should be free. Anyway, so I argue against it and they cancel it, well not just I suffer but you suffer too. So a lot of people have a vested interest in scientists not complaining too loudly and they are not complaining sufficiently.

You have been active in many fields, not only science. You have been very active in science policy also. And what brought you into that field? And you have been also very much involved in the responsibility of scientists in society.

John Polanyi: Partly family background. Here were a bunch of people who were in various ways politically active. And then the whole thing, I mean as a student at Manchester University I was running a newspaper, this was as an undergraduate. And I was very conscious of the fact that, I don’t know, when I was 15 the world entered the atomic age and I used my newspaper when I went to university at the age of 17, Manchester University and studied chemistry. But I didn’t apply myself very much to chemistry. I read widely and ran this newspaper. And in the newspaper, I was saying, my newspaper, so I could get my articles in quite easily, I was saying that the world has changed with the advent of nuclear weapons and the whole role of war in human affairs needs to be reconsidered. I wish I had those articles, I don’t have them anymore. And that life motif really has run through my life surprisingly.

Then I went to Princeton for a couple of years and there I ran into Leo Szilard, and Szilard was one of the great minds and great eccentrics of the past decades and he impressed me enormously. And so, this added to the sort of family business. And Szilard was a guy who felt that you should take responsibility for the history of your time. Actually, partly through Szilard but partly through accidents I found myself in 1960, by then I had left Princeton and was a junior professor in Canada, I found myself at one of the fairly early Pugwash meetings in Moscow and there we were discussing how to hold the level of nuclear weapons at a lower level and accept the fact that deterrents existed. But not let the arms race go on and on because that itself would constitute an intolerable hazard. We failed of course in that, when I say we I was a very junior element in it, but the people there, myself included, helped lay the groundwork for thinking which subsequently was important.

But mainly I tell you that story because you can see that Leo Szilard led me into the political scene. Typical of him that when we were in Moscow it was December of 1960 and he was a bit dissatisfied with the outcome of this meeting we had, and he said well you and I, I was the least important person there, should stay behind and see Khrushchev. And so we stuck around. Khrushchev had flu and I got more and more depressed in the darkness of winter in Moscow and eventually I went back to Toronto leaving Szilard behind. He did see Khrushchev. But that was his sort of cast of mind. After all he wrote the letter I think that Einstein sent to Roosevelt. So I mean this was somebody who took history in his hands. I’ve never been able to, but I always felt the desire to do it and felt that life would be more meaningful if one tried at least.

You mentioned your involvement in the Pugwash movement. How much of your time did you spend on these issues?

John Polanyi: That’s very difficult to say but certainly not enough of my time. But I was involved in getting Pugwash moving in Canada but this was in the late 1950s and in that forum and in other forums I have been part of a sub group of the scientific community which has tried to, in the first place, tried to damp down the arms race by saying there are ways in which we could have arms control. Politicians tend to say it’s not been done, people will cheat, we’re safer just building a bigger weapon or a better weapon than our opponent. And so, I think that scientists have a role in saying the world can change, we should not rely always on winning the arms race with every other country because that way lies disaster. And scientists have been saying this but not a large enough group of scientists. That’s what Pugwash existed for.

So there were a succession of arms control issues in which scientists were providing technical advice, but they were doing much more than that. They were saying this is a rotten direction to go in, it’s dangerous, we should be going in that direction. It happened, in my country it happened with the question of should Canada get nuclear weapons, the United States actually wanted us to get them because we could help defend the US, this was late 1950s. Next question: should Canada build nuclear fallout shelters? I and other scientists said look, this is ridiculous, they aren’t going to work. But really what we were saying was we don’t want to live in a world in which we dig holes and all disappear in them. There must be a more happy, dignified outcome to the forward march of technology than that we all become underground creatures.

And so it went on. And most recently it has been the question of sophisticated missile defences. And it’s certainly true that under favourable conditions you can hit a bullet with a bullet and that you can hope to defend yourself poorly in that way. But under real circumstances where somebody does something surprising, there is a conflict, those circumstances you will never succeed in hitting a bullet with a bullet and it’s really part of every scientist’s experience that it is easier to make something malfunction, in this case we’re talking about a sophisticated defence system, than make it function. It is easier therefore for me to go into the lab where my student is and mess up his experiment than it is for him to make it work. And that being the case this anti-missile defence screen which has now been re-born as the US National Missile Defence which shortly will become the US and Canadian Missile Defence unless we argue against it, and thereafter will become the US Canada and Europe Missile Defence, and it won’t work. And what it will do is spend hundreds of billions of dollars on a direction which really offers no hope.

The direction that offers hope is to build up democracies, that requires spending money, give people in those countries the opportunity to reach levels of wealth which are satisfying so that they have countries which are open and to a degree contented. And at the same time establish an international rule of law which we’re trying to do, a new world is being born in which when the nationals of a certain country are victimised, other countries say this is intolerable, we’ve got to do something. That doesn’t mean they actually do something, but they say it and they mean it. Increasingly they will do something if we clamour for it. And I think that scientists, having gone so far along the path of saying what sort of world they think is a decent and civilised one, could help further that process and that’s what scientists in Pugwash and other similar groupings are trying to do.

And how do you see the role of the United Nations? The last few years there’s been obvious failures of the United Nations in Africa, they’ve not prevented these interminable wars.

John Polanyi: I see the role of the United Nations, for all its failures, as absolutely pivotal. I mean if it were to fail all we could do would be to re-found it. We must have it because there is no, there can be no organisation on earth that has a greater authority than one which includes virtually every country on earth. And that moral authority is needed to legitimise the last sensible use of force. If people are being terrorised and victimised and having their human rights massively infringed in some part of the world, the whole world today of course sees it, the whole world should and I think increasingly does feel a sense of responsibility to do something, the only body that can truly make the use of first persuasion and then the minimum force valid is the United Nations.

Now the United Nations Security Council which represents a broad range of humankind does make forceful statements of indignation over Somalia, Rwanda, Indonesia, Bosnia Herzegovina and so on, and goes further than making those statements. It has intervened but as you say it has failed much more often that it has succeeded. I think that we have to realise that none the less that is the direction to go in just, one doesn’t give up. I mean if the police force, the domestic police force in Sweden fails to catch the assassin of Olof Palme, you don’t say well I guess we can do without the police force now, they’ve failed. On the contrary, you try to improve them. And that, police forces in fact are a modern novelty, they’re 100 to 150 years old and they still fail all the time. And yet people are so surprised if the United Nations after such a short period in their business with so little support from many nations, including some great nations, fails. It can succeed and we have to see that it does.

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