POLANYI, MICHAEL

POLANYI, MICHAEL
POLANYI, MICHAEL (1891–1976) British physical chemist and philosopher. Born in Budapest, Polyani was educated at the extraordinarily successful Minta Gymnasium. He entered the University of Budapest to study medicine (1908) but his interest in physical chemistry largely dominated his student career and he spent the summer of 1912 at the Technische Hochschule in Karlsruhe, Germany, where he wrote his first papers on physical chemistry with Einstein's approval. He received his M.D. (1913) and returned to the Karlsruhe institute for the 1913–14 academic year, but joined the Austro-Hungarian Army as a medical officer on the outbreak of war in 1914. Diphtheria and other illness curtailed his military obligations, allowing him to complete his Ph.D. (awarded in 1919). Political upheaval linked to virulent antisemitism obliged Polanyi to leave Hungary to work in Karslruhe again (1919–20), and in Berlin at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Fiber Chemistry (1920–23) and for Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry (1923–33), eventually with a tenured position as "scientific member." After initial reservations, with the Nazi rise to power he moved to the University of Manchester, England (1933), as professor of physical chemistry with a brief to revitalize the chemistry department. A shift in his professional interests from the sciences to the humanities prompted a change in title to professor of social studies (1948) before his retirement in 1958. He was elected a senior research fellow at Merton College, Oxford (1959–61) and he continued to write, lecture, and travel as visiting professor in Europe and North America. He lived in Oxford until shortly before his death in Northampton. Polanyi's first scientific work concerned the interaction of molecules with a liquid surface, a process termed adsorption. His subsequent interests centered on the fundamental basis of molecular structure and the factors governing molecular association and dissociation. His theoretical insight was matched by technical innovations in crystallography and methods for studying gases at low concentration. His work had an important practical application in the British development of synthetic rubber during World War II. His work also explained the remarkable fibrous strength of cellulose. He was elected to the Royal Society of London (1944). Polanyi's interest in other fields dates from his student days. His philosophical studies explored the links between the physical universe and religious belief and were also largely concerned with the central role of personal morality in the face of eternal human imperfection. These beliefs were closely related to his conviction that scientists should have social concerns but intellectual freedom without constraints imposed by central planning. His early defense of what are now termed civil rights complemented his vigorous political opposition to communism and his support for Keynesian economics. Polanyi identified with Christianity mainly on moral grounds and he converted to the Roman Catholic Church (1919), although possibly for political reasons. He was not a practicing Catholic and was skeptical about biblical authority. Although he did not join any Jewish communal organizations and was opposed to Zionism, he gave talks to Jewish societies. He married Magda, a chemistry student, in a civil ceremony (1921) and they had two sons. Polanyi's extensive writings in all fields are listed in Scott and Moleski's enlightening biography Michael Polanyi: Scientist and Philosopher (2005). (Michael Denman (2nd ed.)

Encyclopedia Judaica. 1971.

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