Gerhard Herzberg Facts
The German-born Canadian chemist/physicist Gerhard Herzberg (born 1904) was famous for his spectral analysis of molecules and atoms. He was one of only three Canadians to win a Nobel Prize.
Born in Hamburg, Germany, on Christmas day, 1904, he was the younger son of Albin and Ella Herzberg. Gerhard early showed an interest in science. However, his life was disrupted at the age of 10 when his father died, and his mother was later forced to emigrate alone to the United States to work as a housekeeper.
He originally had hoped to become an astronomer but was told by the director of a German observatory that there was no point in going into the field unless he had a private income. So he went on to take a course in engineering physics, supported in part by a scholarship offered by a wealthy industrialist.
His genius showed early, and by the age of 24 he had already published 12 papers on atomic and molecular physics.
In 1924, while at the Darmstadt Technical University, he embarked on work in the area that eventually brought him his Nobel award. After reading Sommerfeld's classic book on atomic structure and spectral lines he fixed on spectroscopy—the study of light waves and other radiation which molecules and atoms can be made to emit or absorb—as his central scientific interest. Having obtained his doctorate in 1928, he spent the following year at the University of Gottingen. There he and a group of other young physicists eagerly applied the principles of quantum mechanics to obtain a fuller understanding of the electronic structures of atoms and molecules.
In 1929 he spent a second post-doctoral year at the University of Bristol in England where he photographed and analyzed the spectra of phosphorus carbide molecules, among others. During this year he returned briefly to Gottingen and married Luise Dettinger, a Jewish physics student. This marriage was to have significant ramifications in Herzberg's life after the Nazis came to power.
From 1930 to 1935 he worked as a privatodozent at Darmstadt Technical University. A privatodozent in the German academic system is able to give private lectures at the university for which he receives a fee. In addition, Herzberg supervised undergraduate laboratories.
At Darmstadt he collaborated in research with the Hungarian-born inventor of the hydrogen bomb, Edward Teller. He also began the first of his attempts to apply his spectroscopic efforts to astrophysics—in this case, the oxygen molecule observed in the atmosphere of the sun.
In 1933 he began to look for work outside of Germany because the Nazis introduced laws banning professors with Jewish wives from teaching at universities. His wife had already begun collaborating with him on a number of papers. In 1935 a former student of his named John Spinks obtained for him a post at the unlikely site of the University of Saskatchewan, located in the middle of the Canadian prairies. He arrived there with the equivalent of $2.50 in his pocket.
Even though the university was nearly bankrupt, Herzberg was able to turn it into a world center for spectrographic research in the ten years he stayed there. He and his wife also began a family, starting with his son Paul, born in 1936, and followed by his daughter Agnes, born in 1938.
While in Saskatchewan he started his work on "free radicals." These are molecular fragments which appear for millioneths of a second when molecules are breaking apart and combining in new structures. These chemical reactions are of increasing interest to atmospheric scientists who are studying their relation to pollution in the Earth's upper atmosphere.
"Knowledge of their (free radicals) importance is of fundamental importance to our understanding of how chemical reactions proceed," said the Nobel committee in giving Herzberg his prize. It took Herzberg 14 years of research before he could identify one of these free radicals.
Herzberg also was one of the first to suggest the existence of molecules in space. His claim was initially disputed by other scientists who thought that the ultraviolet rays which are partially blocked out by the Earth's atmosphere would break down all space-born molecules into simple elements. Herzberg also was able to identify some of the elements that make up comets from spectrographic readings.
Before he left Germany, Herzberg completed the first of his classic books of spectroscopy, entitled Atomic Spectra and Atomic Structure (1937, 1944). Barred from working on major wartime research during much of World War II because he was legally an alien, Herzberg produced the first two volumes of his three-volume work on the structure and spectra of molecules (Molecular Spectra and Molecular Structure, 1939, 1945, 1966). Toward the end of the war the Canadian government put his talents to work analyzing the detonation characteristics of explosives.
In 1945 Herzberg went to Yerkes Observatory, which belongs to the University of Chicago, and stayed there for three years. It was in Chicago that his youthful interest in astronomy and his chemical training were reunited in an extensive analysis of various stellar substances. Unhappy with living in Chicago, he returned to Canada in 1948 to become director of physics at the Canadian government's National Research Council (NRC) in Ottawa, Ontario.
In the region around Ottawa he was able to continue his life-long love of hiking and regularly entertained colleagues and friends alike with his other passion— Germanlieder singing. At the NRC he became a mentor for several generations of Canadian and foreign researchers, impressing them with the unfailing good humor with which he approached life and an almost superhuman capacity for work. When he reached retirement age in 1969, the NRC created its highest grade, distinguished research officer, to allow him to continue his personal research. This he continued to do into his 80s.
It was during this time that he became a leading spokesman against Canadian government efforts to gain more political control over science. He remained a strong advocate of pure research in a Canadian political milieu that increasingly emphasized industry-directed research.
His wife died in 1971, the same year he received the Nobel Prize in chemistry. In 1972 he married Monika Tenthoff, the niece of a close friend he had known during high school.
The Nobel Prize was only one of a number of awards Herzberg received during a scientific career which produced 246 publications. He lectured extensively around the world and received honorary degrees from 35 universities.
About his method of approaching science, Herzberg said in 1984, "In a good sense, I am like a beaver … I don't have all that many problems which are brilliant but if it is a problem I think is important I persist in it."
His contributions to Canadian science were further recognized in 1975 when the NRC's astrophysics and spectroscopy units were reorganized as the Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics, where he continued his research and teaching into his 90s.
Herzberg has added to the lengthy list of accolades and prizes he has already won with awards for scientific achievement from Europe, North America and Japan. In 1987, minor planet 3316=1984 CN1 was officially named Herzberg in his honor.
In 1992, Herzberg was appointed a Member of the Queen's Privy Council for Canada, which is that democratic country's equivalent of a British title. Thus, he became formally addressed as the Honourable Gerhard Herzberg, PC.
Further Reading on Gerhard Herzberg
There are no book-length accounts of Herzberg's life. A shorter account appears in the The Canadian Who's Who, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, Lumley, Elizabeth, (editor) (1996).
The Internet web facilities provided by the Centre for Systems Science at Simon Fraser University should be browsed for a detailed listing of Herzberg's international scientific awards and an encapsulated biography of his life and achievements. Good information can be found by doing a general search on the internet for "Gerhard Herzberg." □