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The Happiest Years of His Life: Michael Polanyi and the Fritz Haber Institute 1923-1933

Prof. Mary Jo Nye (Oregon State University, U.S.A.)

The Hungarian physical chemist Michael Polanyi (1891-1976) was educated in Budapest and Karlsruhe before he moved to Berlin in 1920 to take up a position at the Institute for Fiber Chemistry in the Kaiser Wilhelm Gesellschaft. In 1923 he became director of basic research in physical chemistry in Fritz Haber’s Institute, where he remained, despite attractive offers elsewhere, until the spring of 1933. Polanyi’s researches in surface chemistry, in x-ray studies of fibers and molecules, and especially in chemical kinetics and reaction dynamics placed him in the top rank of physical chemists in Europe at the time. His close friend Eugene Wigner, who was Polanyi’s student and collaborator in the 1920s, later said of Polanyi that “I doubt he was ever again as happy as he had been in Berlin.” This seminar paper examines the working routines and scientific culture at Haber’s Institute that kept Polanyi loyal to the KWG and to Berlin through difficult economic and political times until he had no choice but to resign from his position because of his Jewish origins. His idealization of the scientific culture of the KWG became a major source of his later philosophy of science.

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