George A. Olah’s speech at the Nobel Banquet, December 10, 1994
Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am most grateful for the honor bestowed on me today. Although receiving the Nobel Prize is the greatest satisfaction any scientist can experience, I consider it not only a personal acknowledgment, but also that of all my students, associates and colleagues whose dedicated work over the years allowed my field of chemistry, which is not frequently highlighted in public, to be recognized.
There are many facets of chemistry. Mankind’s drive to uncover the secrets of life’s processes and use this knowledge led to spectacular advances in the biological and health sciences. Chemistry richly contributes to this by helping our understanding at the molecular level. Chemistry is, however, and always will be a central science of its own.
Chemists make compounds and strive to understand their reactions. My own interest lies in the chemistry of the compounds of the elements carbon and hydrogen, called hydrocarbons. These make up petroleum oil and natural gas and thus are in many ways essential for every day life. They generate energy and heat our houses, fuel our cars and airplanes and are raw materials for most manmade materials ranging from plastics to pharmaceuticals. Many of the chemical reactions essential to hydrocarbons are catalyzed by acids and proceed through positive ion intermediates, called carbocations.
To be able to prepare and study these elusive species in stable form acid billions of times stronger than concentrated sulfuric acid were needed (so called superacids). Some substituted carbocations, however, are remarkably stable and are even present in nature. You may be surprised to learn that the fine red wine we drank tonight contained carbocations which are responsible for the red color of this natural 12% or so alcoholic solution. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.
Chemistry does not always enjoy the best of reputation. Many of our plants and refineries are still potentially dangerous and may pollute their surroundings. At the same time our society enjoys a high standard of living not in small measure through the results of chemistry, which few would give up. I believe that chemistry can and will be able to bring about an equilibrium between mankind’s needs and our environmental concerns. Chemistry will continue to benefit mankind in the spirit of Alfred Nobel, a fellow chemist whose example continues to inspire us all.