In his life and work, Gerhard Herzberg defied easy categorization. Herzberg, who died last week at 94 after a long career at Ottawa’s National Research Council, won the 1971 Nobel Prize for chemistry even though he was a physicist. He turned to physics as a young man because he was told his chosen field, astronomy, was suitable only for the wealthy. He toyed with the notion of being an opera singer. And while Herzberg devoted his life to scientific discovery, he believed that science was really about philosophy.
What is categorically clear, however, is that Herzberg is one of the greats of Canadian science. “What he did is set a standard of excellence and a standard of civilized behaviour, both of which we shall continue to treasure,” says University of Toronto chemist John Polanyi, himself a 1986 Nobel chemistry prize winner. For scientists, Herzberg “was the epitome of what we all would like to be,” says Henry Mantsch of the National Research Council’s biological diagnostics institute in Winnipeg. In 1968, Mantsch won a fellowship at the council, becoming one of many “who flocked to the NRC, to this light by the name of G.H., as we called him.” Herzberg had to leave his native Germany
in 1935 because his wife, Luise, was Jewish. They settled first in Saskatoon, where he worked at the University of Saskatchewan. After several years at the University of Chicago, he landed at the research council in Ottawa in 1948. But he always considered Saskatchewan his Canadian birthplace. Herzberg is regarded as the father of molecular spectroscopy, the science of identifying atoms and molecules by the unique signatures of light they emit. The seemingly esoteric specialty has found applications in areas as diverse as crime detection, cancer research and the nature of the universe.
Herzberg, however, would not have appreciated the suggestion that his science was important because it had practical applications. “He didn’t believe in the difference between basic and applied science,” says Mantsch. For Herzberg, there was good science and bad, and “good science will lead to benefits.” Polanyi points out that while Herzberg’s work could be called “real, long-haired science” when he did it, the task of identifying matter at the molecular level is now critical. Among other uses: the computer chip industry tries to identify impurities in parts per billion; police try to detect the presence of concealed explosives by looking for a few
trace molecules. “This is a beautiful example, as Herzberg would have put it, that knowledge is wealth,” Polanyi says. “If you make a real change in people’s ability to think about the physical world, the applications will follow.”
Growing up in Hamburg, Herzberg had such a strong interest in astronomy that he and a school chum built a telescope, actually grinding their own lenses. His father died when he was 10. To support her two children in their studies in Germany, his mother, Ella, moved to the United States to work as a housekeeper. Still in Germany, and discouraged from pursuing a career in astronomy, Herzberg turned to physics and studied under such luminaries as Nobel laureate Max Born and worked in Germany with Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb. In later years, when Mantsch and Herzberg became friends, they watched a TV documentary about the development of nuclear weapons (at Mantsch’s home— Herzberg did not have a television). “Many of the people involved were colleagues of his,” Mantsch said. “He was a walking dictionary because all these people that we know from history, he knew personally.”
The Nobel Prize was awarded for his “contributions to the knowledge of electronic structure and geometry of molecules, particularly free radicals.” But Mantsch said the award, which Herzberg always called “The Prize” to distinguish it from the many other honours he held, was given for a lifetime of scientific inquiry. The results of that study included confirmation that there is water in comets, early work that led others to find the neutron, and the discovery of a new form of hydrogen. But the prize is also associated with a personal tragedy, says his daughter, Agnes Herzberg, a professor of statistics at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. It was awarded just a few months after the death of his first wife, also a physicist, who had worked with him on many projects.
Despite the honours and recognition, Herzberg was never tempted to step into the role of scientist as celebrity. “Growing up, we didn’t know he was famous,” his daughter told Maclean’s. Nor was Herzberg so caught up in his work that he neglected his family, she said: “We always knew what time he would be home.” Agnes can remember him teaching her and her brother, Paul, to fly kites, and later, playing on the floor with her young cousin, using a toy car to explain the nature of centrifugal force.
Herzberg’s modesty and sense of perspective could not stand in the way of Nobel fame. But it was not the prize that defined him, says Mantsch, as much as his success in making his adopted country “a place where science is done at its best.”
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