Photo of Gábor A. Somorjai

Gábor A. Somorjai

  • National Medal of Science
  • Chemistry

For molecular studies of surfaces through the use of single crystals and the development of new techniques that served as foundations of new surface technologies including heterogeneous catalysis.

Gabor Somorjai on always looking ahead

Gábor Somorjai’s life was difficult from the beginning, to say the least. Born in Budapest in 1935 to a Jewish family targeted by the Nazis, young Somorjai barely escaped German imprisonment, though many of his relatives were not so lucky. Despite these early hardships, Somorjai went on to study chemical engineering at the Budapest University of Technology and Economics after World War II. Following the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, however, the budding scientist decided it was time to leave Hungary for good. He headed to the United States to pursue a Ph.D. in Chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley and received his doctorate in 1960. Four years later, Somorjai found himself back at Berkeley, but this time as a faculty member in the College of Chemistry. In his many years as a researcher at Berkeley, Somorjai has become renowned for his expertise in surface chemistry and catalysts in chemical reactions — research with serious implications for everything from nanotechnology to ice rink mechanics. In 2002, in fact, Somorjai served as a consultant to the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah where he offered counsel on how to make ice as fast as possible — by removing bubbles in the ice and keeping the surface water layer thin. Today, Somorjai is one of the most often-cited expert in the fields of catalysis and surface chemistry and is known among his peers as the “father of modern surface chemistry.”

By Sara Grossman