Yuan-Tseh Lee

2011 – Yuan-Tseh Lee


Ladies and Gentlemen,

it is my honor, pleasure and privilege to introduce Professor Yuan-Tseh Lee, a worldwide known scholar, the President of Academia Sinica. We are also very glad he is with us today with his charming wife Bernice.

Professor Lee, when speaking about his decision to become scientist, always gave a short explanation: “Marie Curie”. Marie Curie was his inspiration since his early years till now. We have therefore an extraordinary occasion to host such a great admirer of our compatriot in 2011, a very special year, proclaimed by UNESCO as the International Year of Chemistry, as well as the Maria Skłodowska-Curie Nobel Centennial (her 1911 Nobel Prize in chemistry). Last but not least, only two years ago we have celebrated the Bicentennial of the formation of academic chemistry in Warsaw. Hence, just by chance, we have a kind of “conjunction of chemical planets”, a conjunction that resulted in hosting today an eminent, extraordinary scholar – Professor Yuan-Tseh Lee, known in scientific community as “Mozart of physical chemistry”.

Yuan-Tseh Lee was born in 1936, in Hsinchu, Taiwan. The Lee family moved to Taiwan from the mainland China in sixteenth century. His father was a professional painter, his mother was a school teacher. Yuan was always an enthusiastic student, understanding that a profound general education is extremely important, he read a lot not only from the realm of natural sciences, but also from the wealth of literary works.

His first scientific adventure was at the National Taiwan University he has been admitted to in 1955. He carried out a project on electrophoresis in very poor financial conditions. This fact pushed him to perform the research based more on his own hard work, very long, tedious and precise. It turns out that this experience was in fact the basis of his exceptional personal features like self-confidence, faith, courage, persistance, endurance, that led him later on to important discoveries.

He decided to be as he says “a good chemist”. Lacking the proper courses at the university curriculum he decided to study by his own. This started from quantum mechanics and statistical mechanics, but ended with German and Russian languages. Moreover, he decided to be a master of his own, a lot of courage, since, as he said, as a rule children in Asia are pushed towards obedience and conformism, just opposite to individualism.

In 1962 Yuan Lee was admitted to the University of Berkeley (USA) as a graduate student, only because a support from a Berkeley professor, who knowing Yuan, bent the then-impractical regulation of Berkeley with respect to foreign students. Yuan Lee was sure that in America he will find masters in developing science. What a disappointment: the best university of the world, the best scholars in the world, but nobody teaches him, his boss only asks “what is new?”. He was absolutely disappointed, but since his father spent his last money on the Yuan’s air ticket to America, he had no resources to come back to Taiwan. Yuan Lee begins by a study of chemoionization of excited alkali atoms and receives his first remarkable result, that when an electron is removed from an alkali dimer, the bond becomes longer …but stronger! His supervisor told him this is his PhD thesis, Yuan did not believe, underestimating the achievement. The PhD work took Yuan Lee less than three years.

Then, Yuan Lee got involved in constructing an extraordinary apparatus measuring a complete distribution of products (with respect to the angle as well as velocity) from the N2+ + H2 crossed beam reaction. In this work Yuan Lee proved to be a real virtuoso. On top of that, he was also able to learn extremely quickly about the details of the workshop mechanics, and soon became a kind of creative engineer and even a gifted craftsman – a reminiscence of his shortage-forced Taiwanese experience.

Then Yuan Lee moved to Harvard University to work with Dudley Herschbach group, also specializing in the cross beam experiments. His real love was theory, but our honorable guest was too shy to tell this to Herschbach, and the later realized this only after years of collaboration. Meanwhile Yuan had an idea of a “superapparatus” for measuring more reactions with more complicated reagents. He named it the “Hope”, and a group of enthusiasts joined him. He was a top expert, and his verdicts always proved correct. After only nine months the group led by the today’s laureate got an excellent quality product distributions, revealing some unexpected dynamical features of some test reactions. This was in 1967. “Hope” became known in the scientific community, and Yuan Lee was invited to have professorship at the University of Chicago. At this time he was the author of only two papers, but the University trusted him, they were sure of Lee’s extraordinary potential and expertise. He soon constructed a series of apparatus, which were able to measure an elastic scattering of the noble gas atoms, with interference structures visible and measurable. This made possible to get experimentally an unprecedented level of accuracy of the interatomic interaction potential – we are right now very close to one of Kołos specialties – intermolecular interactions. Then, thanks to our laureate, measurements were possible for more complex reagents, including collisions of the fluorine atom with unsaturated hydrocarbons – all giving new insight, so precious for experimentalists and for theoreticians.

Back to the University of Berkeley in 1974, Professor Yuan Lee mastered his experimental method to an unprecedented degree, making possible measurements unthinkable before him. This was not only a study of resonance states like in F+H2 reaction, but also reactions of radicals with unsaturated hydrocarbons, detailed study of photofragmentation of large molecules, even dependence of reactivity from the angle the atomic orbitals are tilted to the collision axis, and many others.

The results became worldwide known, they were so convincing and crystal-clear that the Nobel Committee decided in 1986 to give the Nobel Prize in chemistry to Professor Yuan-Tseh Lee together with Dudley Herschbach and John Polanyi for “their contributions concerning the dynamics of chemical elementary processes”.

In this way, in 2011 we celebrate not only the International Year of Chemistry and the Maria Skłodowska-Curie Nobel Centennial, but also the 25th anniversary of the Nobel Prize for our distinguished guest Professor Yuan Lee! This makes our today’s ceremony of bestowing the Kołos Medal and Award to Professor Yuan Lee as absolutely exceptional one, making from Warsaw today a very important site on the map of the world chemistry.

Lucjan Piela