Photo of John M. Prausnitz

John M. Prausnitz

  • National Medal of Science
  • Engineering

For his development of engineering-oriented molecular thermodynamics, which provides a scientific method for the design, construction, and operation of chemical manufacturing plants toward economic efficiency, safety, minimum energy consumption, and environmental protection.

John Prausnitz on winning the National Medal of Science

Chemistry whiz John M. Prausnitz certainly has an impressive array of scientific achievements. During his more than a half-century as a professor at the University of California, Berkeley’s College of Chemistry, Prausnitz developed molecular thermodynamics, the study of how molecules interact with solids and liquids to affect the properties of the substances they constitute. His work helped improve the processes by which many of the products on which the world now depends are produced. Plastics, gasoline, and paint can all be made in ways that are safer, more efficient, and more environmentally friendly thanks to the contributions Prausnitz has made.

But for all his achievement in the lab, Prausnitz hardly fits into the typecast of the insular scientist engrossed in his work. In fact, when asked about his “proudest achievement” during an interview with Annual Reviews Conversations, Prausnitz cited a moment when he and his grad students affixed hooks to the wall of a small classroom, so students had a place to hang rain gear on wintry days. Often drawing his greatest inspiration from diversity in relationships, experiences, and academic inquiry, perhaps Prausnitz can be said to reflect his field of study – just as the properties of substances are influenced by the properties of their constituent molecules, he too has been shaped by embracing that which is different.

By Jeremy Gordon