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NSERC prizes - Herzberg

About the scientist

Gerhard Herzberg

In the early 1920s, when young Gerhard Herzberg chose astronomy as his preferred profession, his application to Germany's Hamburg Observatory came back with the advice that "there is no point in thinking of a career in astronomy unless one has private means of support."

It was the only "credential" Herzberg lacked. His support came from his mother, widowed when Herzberg was 10 years old. Mrs. Herzberg eventually emigrated to Wyoming for a housekeeper's position that enabled her to send small amounts back to her two sons in Germany. The young Herzberg endured those lean and lonely years by immersing himself in mathematics, chemistry and physics.

These interests brought him to the attention of a superb high school physics teacher, Herr Hillers, who was in touch with the revolutionary theories then driving physics. He introduced Herzberg to the ideas of the great Danish physicist Niels Bohr, whose atomic theories were laying the foundation for quantum mechanics.

Assisted by a private scholarship from a German industrialist, Herzberg entered the Technical University at Darmstadt in 1924. By 1928, the 24-year-old Herzberg had completed his Doctor of Engineering Physics degree and published 12 papers in atomic and molecular physics. Consequently, he had no difficulty in obtaining a postdoctoral fellowship at one of the outstanding physics centres of the time, the University of Göttingen. At Göttingen, Herzberg worked under Max Born and James Franck, stars of the era, who were applying quantum mechanics to the mysteries of atomic and molecular structures. He then spent a second postdoctoral year at the University of Bristol, where he investigated the electronic structure of diatomic molecules.

In 1930, Herzberg returned to Darmstadt to be a "Privatdozent," which allowed him to lecture without pay, to earn a small salary in return for managing undergraduate research labs, and to carry out his own research. During the next five years, he concentrated on spectroscopy, collaborating with other young scientists, including Edward Teller, with whom he published a major paper on vibrational structures of electronic transitions in polyatomic molecules.

In 1934, Herzberg's group included John W. T. Spinks, a visiting scientist from Saskatoon, a place Herzberg had never heard of, but was soon to know well. Herzberg was notified that he would be dismissed because his wife was Jewish, and he realized they would have to leave Nazi Germany. He asked Spinks if the President of the University of Saskatchewan, Dr. Walter C. Murray, could help him find employment in Canada. Well aware that, at 30 years old, Herzberg was already one of the world's leading molecular physicists, Dr. Murray wrote to both the University of Toronto and the National Research Council Canada (NRC). He then added:

"Should neither of you feel inclined to invite him to come, we would do so with joy, although we have not sufficient means to provide him with proper equipment for his work, but a man of his power and resource can make much of little."

Given the restraints imposed by the Great Depression then underway, neither institution was able to take advantage of this opportunity, so the University of Saskatchewan, despite "only a bunch of I.O.U.s" in the President's safe, offered Herzberg a position (supported for two years by the Carnegie Foundation). The Herzbergs arrived in Saskatoon in September 1935, "with $2.50 in my pocket," as Dr. Herzberg recalled.

The Herzbergs spent 10 years in Saskatoon, where his work on molecular and atomic spectroscopy continued to advance the field and resulted in three of his six classic books on the subject. In 1945, the University of Chicago offered Herzberg the extensive and sophisticated facilities of its renowned Yerkes Observatory. To a man who had never forgotten his early ambitions to be an astronomer, and who was now pursuing research related to comets and planetary atmospheres, the offer was irresistible, despite his strong affection for Saskatchewan.

At Yerkes, Herzberg quickly established a laboratory for investigating planetary spectra by pioneering methods that became standard worldwide, and enabled his group to study the absorption spectra of many molecules of astrophysical interest. Yet Herzberg stayed at Yerkes only three years. The Herzberg family missed Canada; and when, in 1948, the NRC invited Herzberg to establish a laboratory for fundamental research in spectroscopy, he accepted.

At the NRC, Herzberg immediately began assembling a group of young spectroscopists who were to specialize in experimental techniques for studying the microwave, infrared, visible and vacuum ultraviolet regions of the electromagnetic spectrum. In addition, when appointed Director of the Division of Physics, he established new groups in Solid State and Theoretical Physics. Under Herzberg's leadership, NRC became a world leader in spectroscopy, a position for which the NRC is still respected today.

Furthermore, the laboratory's influence on Canadian science extended well beyond the borders of the NRC. Many scientists who worked at the NRC, including Canada's second Nobel Laureate in Chemistry—John C. Polanyi, became internationally recognized leaders in related fields such as chemical physics and laser science.

Dr. Herzberg won his Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1971 "for his contributions to the knowledge of electronic structure and geometry of molecules, particularly free radicals." But his groundbreaking research did not end there. Dr. Boris Stoicheff, the University of Toronto spectroscopist who was a member of Herzberg's NRC lab for 13 years and wrote Dr. Herzberg's biography, stresses that the Nobel Laureate's productivity did not end with the award.

"Dr. Herzberg kept up his research at his usual high level," he says. In addition to the identification of the water ion in the comet Kohoutek, and his discovery in the early 1980s of triatomic hydrogen (for which he won a prestigious American Physical Society medal), he continued to produce new knowledge on hydrogen and free radicals. Even into his 90s, he was enthusiastically pursuing the identification of complex spectra and the enigmatic "diffuse interstellar lines," known for about 60 years, but neither identified nor reproduced in a laboratory. But he also spent more time at his favourite pastimes, music and reading of biographies. He passed away in March 1999.

NSERC has dedicated the Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal for Science and Engineering in honour of the late Dr. Herzberg. This award recognizes research contributions characterized by both excellence and influence—two qualities that defined Dr. Herzberg's illustrious career.

The information in this backgrounder was provided by Dr. Boris Stoicheff and was drawn largely from a commemorative special edition of Physics in Canada (Volume 28, April 1972) to celebrate Dr. Herzberg's Nobel Prize.