Thu, Dec 14, 2006 - Page 9 News List

The vision of a chemist

An essay in honor of Taiwanese Nobel laureate Lee Yuan-tseh on his 70th birthday

By John Polanyi

In about 1965 I was introduced by Bruce Mahan, at the University of California, Berkeley, to a freshly minted doctoral student. A pair of bright eyes examined me from behind an ion-beam machine.

The eyes belonged, of course, to Lee Yuan-tseh (李遠哲).

The apparatus he was hiding behind, had I been astute enough to realize it, was an ancestor of the fabled molecular-beam machine that Lee and Dudley Herschbach (Herschbach being already recognized as a pioneer of molecular-beam chemistry) would construct at Harvard a couple of years later.

Lee's experimental brilliance was never in doubt, from the time that he reached Herschbach's laboratory at Harvard.

There I found Herschbach dancing with delight at his good fortune in having snared a co-worker with magic fingers.

Lee's talent was to know when to design methodically, and when to take a leap of faith. With that combination of skills one can also become a leader far beyond the confines of the lab.

It is, in fact, a talent that chemists cultivate. Since they have daily experience with the insoluble, they have ideal background for high-level administration.

It was many years, however, before Lee decided on that fateful change of career, but first I want to look back to one of the first of the chemistry Nobels -- Svante Arrhenius.

His breadth of vision was evident in his ability to see the landscape of chemical reaction, with its mountain ranges that separate chemical reagents from products. These barriers to reaction provide us with a limited amount of protection against the otherwise deadly effects of warming.

Few know that 100 years ago Arrhenius was thinking in terms not only of chemical change, but also climate change. Moving beyond the confines of chemistry, Arrhenius pondered the conundrum of the Ice Age.

Most of the planet was once covered by a sheet of ice. It was Arrhenius who first made the connection between that prehistoric period and the possibility of future global warming. He was astute enough to see that the clue might lie in changes in a trace constituent of the atmosphere: carbon dioxide. In this he was much ahead of his time.

Arrhenius made his observation on the basis of a feat of calculation.

Here the chemistry of human relationships comes into play, for it was in the same year of 1896 that Arrhenius' marriage collapsed. He consoled himself by spending 14 hours a day in calculation.

By the end of the year Arrhenius was able to conclude that a small reduction in concentration of carbon dioxide, present as only one part in a thousand in the atmosphere, could actually have caused the Ice Age.

His imagination did not flag. Might it not be possible, he asked himself, to show that this change in carbon dioxide concentration could result from human activity?

Could it be that far from being threatened by a new Ice Age, we were now generating enough carbon dioxide to cause significant warming?

He resumed his frantic regime of calculation. His wife had long since left.

Finally, he arrived at the result that the consumption of coal in the 19th century could indeed have been sufficient to cause a very significant doubling in the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide.

At this point Arrhenius asked the wrong question. Shivering in the Stockholm winter he began to calculate whether it would be possible to deliberately accelerate the global production of carbon dioxide so that the climate in Stockholm would become more bearable.

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