Recalling Herzberg

By Dr. John Stone

John Stone graduated with a BSc in Chemistry (Special Honours) in 1966 and a PhD in Molecular Spectroscopy in 1969 both from the University of Reading in the UK. He came to Canada as a Post-doctoral researcher in 1969 working at the National Research Council in the spectroscopy section under G. Herzberg. He then spent a year at the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences in Prague before returning to Canada to continue his research interests at the University of Sherbrooke.

In 1972 he joined the Public Service of Canada assuming increasing responsibilities first in the Ministry of State for Science and Technology, and later in the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, the National Research Council’s Bureau of International Affairs and finally Environment Canada. He has had considerable experience in international science and has served Canada through his affiliation with the NATO Science Committee, the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, the UN/ECE Senior Advisors on Science and Technology, UN the Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Scientific Steering Committee for the START program and as co-Chair for the Canada-Germany S&T Agreement. In 1997 he was appointed to the Bureau of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), specifically as Vice-Chair of Working Group I, and has since been re-appointed, now as a Vice-Chair of Working Group II.

When I came to the National Research Council as a post-doctoral fellow in late 1969, Dr. Herzberg’s laboratory was a Mecca for molecular spectroscopy both experimental and theoretical. It was a time when the field was advancing rapidly with the development of microwave spectrometers and understanding the spectra of non-rigid molecules. 

Scientists from around the World were attracted to GH’s group whether to hear a lecture, learn a technique or undertake their own research. Dr Herzberg was known for working long hours (coming into the laboratory every day except his birthday which coincided with December 25th). The laboratory was a constant hive of activity. GH shared in many of the research projects and scientists were always pleased when he would drop in, wearing his customary white lab coat, to make comments and suggestions on their work. 

Dr. Herzberg was a busy man: in addition to running the spectroscopy group, where his management approach was to hire the very best scientists and facilitating them doing good science, he pursued his own research agenda focussed in latter years on the spectra of free radicals, and working on his foundational books on atomic and molecular spectroscopy. He was ably assisted by his talented technician, Jack Shoesmith, his faithful secretary, Miss Thompson, and his laboratory assistant Izabel Dabrowsky.

The sense of being part of a collective, scientific enterprise was enhanced through coffee and tea-time gatherings (always at the same time every day). In addition there were group meetings where we were given the opportunity to give a talk on our own research.  Occasionally, if one of the scientists was to give a lecture at a conference there would be a rehearsal in the cavernous amphitheatre at Sussex Drive where Dr. Herzberg and staff would sit at the very back to make sure the slides were readable. 

In a more relaxed setting a group of us would cross the road at lunch-time to escape the NRC Cafeteria and eat at the City Hall restaurant where GH would share his scientific and social memories, even jokes, with us (but he never agreed to capture them in a biography). The discussion was not only about science and scientists. Dr. Herzberg was a cultured man reflecting his broad German education. He was particularly interested in music and had a rich bass singing voice. Incidentally he always had the same meal – soup with crunched crackers – as befitted his modesty.