Yuan T. Lee

lee1986 Nobel Prize for Chemistry

• Presentation of Award
• Acceptance Speech
• Biography Submitted by Dr. Lee to the Nobel Committee
• Presentation of Award: 1986 Nobel Prize for Chemistry
Speech by Professor Sture Forsen of the Royal Academy of Sciences. Translation from the Swedish text
Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen,
A burning flame–a little everyday miracle that has astonished and fascinated most of us. A chemical reaction that produces heat and light and that during historical times has modified the conditions of life for mankind and made developing civilizations possible even on our northerly latitudes. But at the same time also a chemical transformation in which the products formed slowly have modified our atmosphere and most likely will also affect the earth’s climate.

Press conference and reception at San Francisco Airport for Yuan T. Lee, Nobel Prize recipient with Melvin Calvin (left) and Glenn Seaborg (right).
From the point of view of natural science a burning flame is an intriguingly complex phenomenon. Oxygen molecules in air react with carbon and hydrogen in organic molecules. A manifold of primary products are formed, often unstable and reactive. Atoms are torn away from their parent molecules. The products of one reaction become the reactants of another. Dozens or even hundreds of molecular reactions occur in parallel. It is a scientific challenge to unravel the details of these transformations.

Let us assume that we choose for our study only one of the many chemical reactions that take place in a flame. Superficially this reaction may appear very simple and easy to understand. At a closer look, however, we find that Nature is elusive and complexity still prevails. Many difficulties await him who would like to study chemical reactions in their most intimate molecular details. The reaction event proper is a molecular drama that takes place under an exceedingly short time span–of the order of a millionth of a millionth of a second–times scientists refer to-as a “picosecond. How is it at all possible to obtain detailed information of what goes on under such short time? Most of our knowledge has been gained through a deliberate simplification of the reacting system and through a strict control of the conditions of the reaction. Furthermore our knowledge is to a large extent indirect and based upon a detailed analysis of the initial conditions as well as of the results of the reaction event. A reader of detective novels would perhaps like to make a parallel to the concept of “circumstantial evidence” as a means to prove the guilt of a suspect.

Nobel Award ceremony in Sweden for Yuan T. Lee with Karl Gustaf, King of Sweden, 1986.
The problem facing the scientist has been compared with that of a spectator of a drastically shortened version of a classical drama – ‘Hamlet’ say – where he or she is only shown the opening scenes of the first act and the last scene of the finale. The main characters are introduced, then the curtain falls for change of scenery and as it rises again we see on the scene floor a considerable number of “dead” bodies and a few survivors. Not an easy task for the inexperienced to unravel what actually took place in between.

This year’s Nobel prize winners of chemistry have through their brilliant work in a decisive way enlarged our knowledge of the detailed events in chemical reactions. Reactions between molecules have been studied at low pressures by letting beams of molecules and/or atoms meet at one point in space. The energy of the reacting molecules or atoms has been controlled and the properties of the products formed–their chemical composition, their angular distribution from the place of collision, their speed and their rotational and vibrational energy–have been studied. Through experiments of this kind the prizewinners of this year have been able to paint a very detailed picture of the molecular drama occurring between the opening scene and the finale.

Many of the results obtained have been unexpected and surprising and constitute a rich source of fundamental data for theoreticians to ponder. Their scientific work is truly pure basic chemical research of utmost quality but is nevertheless also of immediate importance for a number of other areas–from basic combustion research to chemistry in the stratosphere and troposphere–areas that are of great concern to mankind.

Yuan-T Lee in lab, taken October 21, 1986.
Professor Herschbach, Professor Lee and Professor Polanyi. Your brilliant research into the finer molecular details of chemical reactions has greatly advanced our knowledge in this central area of chemistry. Your approaches to the problem have differed in detail but your goals have been the same. You have, in a way that is truly admirable, combined extraordinary experimental skill with deep theoretical insight. In recognition of your services to chemistry and to natural science as a whole the Royal Academy of Sciences has decided to confer upon you this years Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

Professor Herschbach, Professor Lee and Professor Polanyi,
To me has been granted the privilege to convey to you the warmest congratulations of the Academy and I now invite you to receive your prize from the hands of his Majesty the King.

© the Nobel Foundation 1987

• Acceptance Speech by Dr. Polanyi on Behalf of all Three Winners

John C. Polanyi
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.

© the Nobel Foundation 1987

• Biography Submitted by Dr. Lee to the Nobel Committee

Yuan T Lee, Nobel Prize recipient, with wife and daughter at reception at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, 1986.
Yuan Tseh Lee was born on November 19, 1936 in Hsinchu, Taiwan. His father is an accomplished artist and his mother a school teacher.

He started his early education while Taiwan was under Japanese occupation–a result of a war between China and Japan in 1894. His elementary education was disrupted soon after it started during World War II while the city populace was relocated to the mountains to avoid the daily bombing by the Allies. It was not until after the war when Taiwan was returned to China that he was able to attend school normally as a third year student in grade school.

His elementary and secondary education in Hsinchu was rather colorful and full of fun. In elementary school, he was the second baseman on the school’s baseball team as well as a member of the ping-pong team which won the little league championship in Taiwan. In high school he played on the tennis team besides playing trombone in the marching band.

Besides his interest in sports during this time, he was also an avid and serious reader of a wide variety of books covering science, literature, and social science. The biography of Madame Curie made a strong impact on him at a young age. It was Madame Curie’s beautiful life as a wonderful human being, her dedication toward science, her selflessness, idealism that made him decide to be a scientist.

In 1955, with his excellent academic performance in high school, Lee was admitted to the National Taiwan University without having to take the entrance examination, a practice the Universities took to admit the best students. By the end of his freshman year he had decided chemistry was to be his chosen field. Although the facilities in the Taiwan University were less than ideal, the free and exciting atmosphere, the dedication of some professors, and the camaraderie among fellow students in a way made up for it. He worked under Professor Hua-sheng Cheng on his B.S. thesis which was on the separation of Sr and Ba using the paper electrophoresis method.

After graduation in 1959, he went on to the National Tsinghua University to do his graduate work. He received his Master’s degree on the studies of the natural radioisotopes contained in Hukutolite, a mineral of hot spring sediment under Professor H. Hamaguchi’s guidance. After receiving his M.S. he stayed on at Tsinghua University as a research assistant of Professor C.H. Wong and carried out the x-ray structure determination of tricyclopentadienyl samarium.

He entered the University of California at Berkeley as a graduate student in 1962. He worked under the late Professor Bruce Mayan for his thesis research on chemiionization processes of electronically excited alkali atoms. During his graduate student years, he developed an interest in ion-molecule reactions and the dynamics of molecular scattering, especially the crossed molecular beam studies of reaction dynamics.

Upon receiving his Ph.D. degree in 1965, he stayed on in Mahan’s group and started to work on ion molecule reactive scattering experiments with Ron Gentry using ion beam techniques measuring energy and angular distributions. In a period of about a year he learned the art of designing and constructing a very powerful scattering apparatus and carried out successful experiments on N2+ + H2 -> N2H+ + H and obtained a complete product distribution contour map, a remarkable accomplishment at that time.

In February 1967, he joined Professor Dudley Herschbach at Harvard University as a post-doctoral fellow. He spent half his time working with Robert Gordon on the reactions of hydrogen atoms and diatomic alkali molecules and the other half of his time on the construction of a universal crossed molecular beams apparatus with Doug McDonald and Pierre LeBreton. Time was certainly ripe to move the crossed molecular beams method beyond the alkali age. With tremendous effort and valuable assistance from the machine shop foreman, George Paisley, the machine was completed in ten months and the first successful non alkali neutral beam experiment on Cl + Br2 – -> BrCl + Br was carried out in late 1967.

He accepted the position as an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and the James Franck Institute of the University of Chicago in October 1968. There he started an illustrious academic career. His further development as a creative scientist and his construction of a new generation state-of-the-art crossed molecular beams apparatus enabled him to carry out numerous exciting and pioneering experiments with his students. He was promoted to associate professor in October 1971 and professor in January 1973.

In 1974, he returned to Berkeley as professor of chemistry and principal investigator at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory of the University of California. He became an American citizen the same year.

President Reagan presenting the National Medal of Science to Yuan Lee in a White House ceremony in March, 1986.
In the ensuing years, his scientific efforts blossomed and the scope expanded. His world leading laboratory now contains seven very sophisticated molecular beams apparati which were specially designed to pursue problems associated with reaction dynamics, photochemical processes, and molecular spectroscopy. His laboratory has always attracted bright scientists from all over the world and they always seem to enjoy working together. He takes great pride in the fact that more than fifteen of his former associates are serving as professors in major universities, and many others are making great contributions at the national laboratories and in the private sector.

Lee and his wife, Bernice Wu, whom he first met in elementary school have two sons, Ted (born in 1963), Sidney (born in 1966) and a daughter, Charlotte (born in 1969).

Among some of the awards and recognitions he has received over the years include:

Alfred P. Sloan Fellow, 1969-1971
Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation Teacher Scholar Grant, Recipient 1971-1974.
Fellow, American Academy of Arts and Science, 1975.
Fellow, American Physical Society. 1976.
John Simon Guggenheim Fellow. 1976-1977.
Member, National Academy of Sciences. 1979.
Member, Academia Sinica. Taiwan, China. 1980.
Honorary Professor, Institute of Chemistry, Chinese Academy of Science, Beijing, China. 1980.
Honorary Professor, Fudan University, Shanghai, China, 1980.
Miller Professorship, University of California, Berkeley, California, 1981-1982.
Ernest 0. Lawrence Award. U.S. Department of Energy. 1981.
Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Scholar. California Institute of Technology. 1983.
Harrison Howe Award, Rochester Section, American Chemical Society, 1983.
Peter Debye Award of Physical Chemistry-, American Chemical Society, 1986.
National Medal of Science, 1986.
Honorary Professor, Chinese University of Science and Technology, Hofei, Anhuei, China, 1986.
Honorary Doctor of Science Degree, University of Waterloo, 1986.

© the Nobel Foundation 1987
Ernest Orlando Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
Last modified Tuesday, 23-Mar-2010 14:52:38 PDT