Oral history interview with Gábor Somorjai

Oral history interview with Gábor Somorjai

  • 2014-Jan-30 – 2014-Jan-31

Gábor Somorjai was born in Budapest, Hungary, during World War II and lived an comfortable, integrated life until Anti-Semitic laws impacted the family. His paternal grandfather had converted to Judaism. His mother’s family was in the shoe business. Anti-Semitic laws cost Somorjai’s father, a math genius, his bank job, whence he was conscripted and sent to the Russian front. The elder Somorjai was interned eventually in Mauthausen concentration camp and returned with typhoid. Like many Hungarians, the Somorjais were rescued by Raoul Wallenberg and eventually returned to their home, but the Russian occupation forbade school, so Gábor played chess and read history until he eventually matriculated in Minta Gimnázium. From there his basketball coach got him into Budapest University of Technology and Economics, where he studied chemical engineering, interested in polymers and catalysis. When the Russian tanks rolled into Budapest, Somorjai and his girlfriend, later his wife, escaped to Austria. In Vienna he met Cornelius Tobias and learned about Charles Tobias at the University of California, Berkeley. The two immigrated to the United States, eventually accepted, provisionally, by Berkeley. At Berkeley Somorjai switched to chemistry, working with Richard Powell on his long-lived dream of catalysis. During this time he also married.

PhD in hand and dream in heart, Somorjai accepted a job at International Business Machines (IBM). He built an instrument for his research into low-energy electron diffraction (LEED), and observed that catalytic reactions take place on surfaces. His interest in surfaces extended from electrical to chemical reactions, and he began to study platinum and then oxide-metallic interfaces. This led to the study of nanotechnology and the development of the scanning tunneling microscope. Interesting even to laymen are his explanation of why ice is slippery and his discussion of contact lenses, which he points out are polymers; both have their effectiveness on the surface. He is called the father of surface science. Moving at last to catalysis, he began consulting on catalytic converters for General Motors Company. Though he says that instruments magically appear when needed, in fact he has developed most of his own. There are three types of catalysis: heterogeneous, homogeneous, and enzyme. Somorjai is working on heterogenizing homogeneous catalysis to yield hybrid catalysis, and attempting to figure out how to do enzyme catalysis in a hybrid model with heterogeneous catalysis, and then working out how multiple catalysts work. He maintains that the “discovery of [his] life” is that catalytic reactions are controlled by the size and shape of nanoparticles; when two-dimensional they form a Langmuir-Blodgett film, and when three-dimensional they are useful to industry.

Somorjai explains how he brought his parents to the United States while he was at IBM. He talks about Amos Elon’s The Pity of It All. He wants to do science as long as he can, he says, stressing the importance and explosive increase of science in United States and the change of science research from industry to academia. Somorjai says that finding and placing students is important; he always looked for those with the dream and attempts to place them in the best possible situations. Somorjai has published many articles and books and won many, many awards. He and his wife have established at Berkeley the Somorjai Award and the Somorjai Professorship.

Property Value
Place of interview
  • 96 pages
  • 4 h 39 m 10 s
Rights Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License
Rights holder
  • Science History Institute
Credit line
  • Courtesy of Science History Institute
Digitization funder
  • Audio synchronization made possible through the generous funding of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission.

About the Interviewer

Hilary Domush was a Program Associate in the Center for Oral History at CHF from 2007–2015. Previously, she earned a BS in chemistry from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine in 2003.  She then completed an MS in chemistry and an MA in history of science both from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  Her graduate work in the history of science focused on early nineteenth-century chemistry in the city of Edinburgh, while her work in the chemistry was in a total synthesis laboratory.  At CHF, she worked on projects such as the Pew Biomedical Scholars, Women in Chemistry, Atmospheric Science, and Catalysis.

Physical location

Oral history number 0910

Related Items

Interviewee biographical information

  • May 04, 1935
  • Budapest, Hungary


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1956 Budapesti Műszaki Egyetem BS Chemical Engineering
1960 University of California, Berkeley PhD Chemistry

Professional Experience

International Business Machines Corporation

  • 1960 to 1964 Research Staff

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

  • 1964 to 2017 Faculty Senior Scientist

University of California, Berkeley

  • 1964 to 1967 Assistant Professor of Chemistry
  • 1967 to 1972 Associate Professor of Chemistry
  • 1972 to 2017 Professor of Chemistry


Year(s) Award
1969 Guggenheim Fellowship
1969 Visiting Fellow, Emmanuel College, United Kingdom
1972 Unilever Visiting Professor, University of Bristol, United Kingdom
1976 Kokes Award, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland
1976 Elected Fellow, American Physical Society
1977 Emmett Award, American Catalysis Society
1978 Miller Professorship, University of California, Berkeley
1979 Member, National Academy of Sciences
1981 Colloid and Surface Chemistry Award, American Chemical Society
1982 Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Science
1982 Distinguished Scholar for Exchange with China
1983 Member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences
1986 Henry Albert Palladium Medal
1989 Peter Debye Award in Physical Chemistry, American Chemical Society
1989 Senior Distinguished Scientist Award, Alexander von Humboldt Foundation
1989 E.W. Mueller Award, University of Wisconsin
1990 Honorary Membership in Hungarian Academy of Sciences
1994 Adamson Award in Surface Chemistry, American Chemical Society
1995 Chemical Pioneer, American Institute of Chemists
1997 Von Hippel Award, Materials Research Society
1998 Wolf Prize in Chemistry
2000 American Chemical Society Award for Creative Research in Homogeneous or Heterogeneous Catalysis
2000 Linus Pauling Medal for Outstanding Accomplishment in Chemistry, American Chemical Society, Puget Sound, Portland and Oregon Section
2002 National Medal of Science
2003 Cotton Medal, Texas A&M University
2006 Remsen Award from the Maryland Section of the ACS
2006 Honorary Fellow, Cardiff University
2007 Langmuir Prize from the American Physical Society
2008 Priestley Medal from the American Chemical Society
2009 Senior Miller Fellow, Miller Institute, University of California, Berkeley
2009 Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science Award
2009 Excellence in Surface Science Award from the Surfaces in Biointerfaces Foundation
2009 Fellow of the American Chemical Society
2009 Honorary Membership, Chemical Society of Japan
2011 Honda Prize
2011 BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Basic Sciences
2013 National Academy of Sciences Award in Chemical Sciences
2015 William H. Nichols Medal of the New York Section of the American Chemical Society
2015 Honorary Fellowship of the Royal Society of Chemistry
2017 ENI New Frontiers of Hydrocarbons Prize
2017 Richard Award, Harvard University

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The published version of the transcript may diverge from the interview audio due to edits to the transcript made by staff of the Center for Oral History, often at the request of the interviewee, during the transcript review process.

Complete Interview Audio File Web-quality download

5 Separate Interview Segments Archival-quality downloads