Sunday, December 25, 2011

Gerhard Herzberg

Gerhard Heinrich Friedrich Otto Julius Herzberg was born on December 25, 1904 in Hamburg, Germany.  His father was a businessman and worked for a small shipping company.  He died when Herzberg was still young.  After his father's death he lived briefly with his uncle in Frankfurt, but he did poorly in school and was homesick so he returned to live with his mother.  In Hamburg he attended the Realgymansium de Johanneums, where he had excellent teachers and developed an interest in astronomy and atomic physics.  He studied astronomy by reading textbooks from public libraries and with a friend made a crude telescope, but he was unable to pursue a career in astronomy for financial reasons.  With a fellowship from industrialist Hugo Stinnes he was able to attend the Technische Universtat Darmstadt, graduating with a Dr.Ing. in 1928.  After graduation he did postdoctoral work at Gottengen University and Bristol University under James Franck, Max Born and John Lennard-Jones.

After completing his postdoc he returned to Technishche Universtat Darmstadt as a pirvatdozant (lecturer).  In 1935 Herzberg was forced to flee Germany because of his Jewish wife, and he took a position as a guest lecturer at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, which was almost immediately made permanent. Herzberg remained at the University of Saskatchewan until 1945 when he became professor of spectroscopy at Yerkes Observatory at the University of Chicago, where he remained until 1948.  In 1948 he returned to Canada as the principal research officer and then director of the Division of Physics at the Canadian National Research Council.  In 1955 the Division of Physics of the Canadian National Research Council was split into two divisions, pure and applied physics and Herzberg remained president of the pure physics division.  In 1969 he was made distinguished scientist of the recombined Division of Physics of the Canadian National Research Council.

Herzberg's research dealt with spectroscopy and determining molecular geometries using spectroscopy.  From his doctoral thesis, on the spectrum of nitrogen gas, and throughout his career he determined spectra of various chemicals and from these data he was able to determine their geometry.  Because of Herzberg's work spectroscopy is a tool that chemists can use to determine the identity of a chemical.  Different molecules absorb and emit characteristic wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation determined by their structure.  Chemists use these characteristic absorbancies and emissions to determine the structure and identity of molecules.  At Yerkes Observatory Herzberg applied his knowledge of spectroscopy to determine the gasses present in planetary atmospheres.  He is author of the four volume Molecular Spectroscopy and Molecular Structure which has been called the spectroscopist's bible.  In 1971 Herzberg was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for "his contributions to the knowledge of electronic structure and geometry of molecules, particularly free radicals".

Other honors won by Herzberg include election to the Canadian National Academy of Science in 1939 and the Royal Society of London in 1951.  Other awards won by Herzberg include the Willard Gibbs Award from the American Chemical Society, the Order of Canada, and the Royal Medal from the Royal Society of London.

Herzberg died on March 3, 1999 at the age of 94.


Interview of Gerhard Herzberg by  Brenda J. Weinnwisser on February 28 and March 2, 1989, Niels Bohr Library and Archive, American Institute of Physics,

Black, Harry; Canadian Scientists and Inventors: Biographies of People Who Made a Difference; Pembroke Publishers Ltd.; 1997

Devorkian, David; "Gerhard Herzberg, 1904-1999"; Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society; (2000)35:1669-1670

Gerhard Herzberg Nobel Biography

Gerhard Herzberg Wikipedia Entry

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