John C. Polanyi’s speech at the Nobel Banquet, December 10, 1986
Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Late in his career as an actor Richard Burton was asked by an interviewer what it was in his work on the stage that had given him the keenest pleasure. Burton thought for a while, and then replied: “the applause”.
That is not so ignoble a confession as it sounds. The applause is a celebration not only of the actors but also of the audience. It constitutes a shared moment of delight.
In some countries the actors are permitted to participate in the applause. This is what, by mutual agreement, the three of us – Dudley Herschbach, Yuan Lee, and myself – wish to do tonight.
Alfred Nobel in inaugurating his prizes, and thereafter Your Majesties, the Nobel Foundation, and the people of Sweden in giving them this elegant and open-hearted expression, have shown the world how to celebrate.
What you have undertaken to celebrate is, of course, the truly remarkable aspect of this occasion. I know of no other place where Princes assemble to pay their respects to molecules. Yours is a rare enthusiasm, expressed with such a degree of conviction that the world has come to share it.
When, as we must often do, we fear science, we really fear ourselves. Human dignity is better served by embracing knowledge.
We three have known each other for decades. Now, because of you, we regard one another with a new sense of wonder. Because of you our wives hesitate for just an instant before summoning us to do the dishes. Thanks to you the wider community of reaction dynamicists, who share our interests and have contributed in a vital fashion to the development of this field, declare themselves proud.
We applaud you, therefore, for your discovery, which has made a memorable contribution to civilization – I refer, Your Majesties and our Swedish hosts, to the institution of this unique prize, for which we, in the company of many others, thank you.
Their work and discoveries range from the formation of black holes and genetic scissors to efforts to combat hunger and develop new auction formats.
See them all presented here.