Of Nobel Laureates, Liberal Education and Social Responsibility

A Commemoration of a ‘Free Radical’ – Gerhard Herzberg 1971 Nobel Citation – “for his contributions to the knowledge of electronic structure and geometry of molecules, particularly free radicals.”

By Paul Dufour
Paul Dufour.

Paul Dufour has been senior adviser in science policy with several Canadian agencies and organizations over the course of the past 30 years. Among these: senior program specialist with the International Development Research Centre, and interim Executive Director at the former Office of the National Science Advisor to the Canadian Government advising on international S&T matters and broad questions of R&D policy directions for the country.

Born in Montreal, Mr. Dufour was educated at McGill, the Université de Montreal and Concordia University in the history of science and science policy, and has had practical S&T policy experience for over three decades having been with such bodies as the Science Council of Canada, Ministry of State for Science and Technology, Foreign Affairs, and special adviser to the Prime Minister’s Advisory Council on S&T.

Dufour lectures regularly on science policy, has authored numerous articles on international S&T relations and Canadian innovation policy. He is series co-editor of the Cartermill Guides to World Science and is the author of the Canada chapter for the UNESCO 2010 Science Report released in November 2010.


The Defining Moments Canada “GH50” project celebrates a Nobel icon 50 years after he received the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1971. His biographer, Boris Stoicheff, outlined his remarkable career and his ground-breaking research. While born and educated in Germany, Prof. Herzberg (1904-1999) spent most of his life in Canada. His legacy continues through many prizes, awards, and institutions. Canada’s highest award for the sciences and engineering, conferred by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, is named for him. Along with his important research, Herzberg had much to say about the role of science, society and culture.

Of Nobelists

Nobel laureates are gifted. They believe in the creative use of their knowledge. This outlook can manifest itself in many ways. They can love music, dance, the arts, science, literature, and teaching. They are often curious about the nature of our world and the universe and want to know more. They can be highly competitive but also collegial.  Often, they believe that they should give back to society in some way– either through education, public writing and speaking or fighting for a cause—or just performing their normal civic duties as part of society. Early education is often a major shaper of future promise, as are the personal and professional  networks.

Nobel laureates rarely expect to win the prize. That’s because this distinction is not their goal. Rather, they want to explore and experiment, to better understand the universe, our society, our culture, our literature, etc. In short, they have a passion to learn and a drive to expand the frontiers of knowledge. The power of ideas matters to them.  As the 2020 chemistry Nobel laureate Emmanuelle Charpentier  has put it, “I want to create knowledge, not just learn it.”

The Nobel Prize, however, also makes them influencers— on many subjects, whether they like it or not. Many learn how to use this gift in a constructive fashion. As Nobel chemistry laureate John Polanyi puts it, “The fact is that science is having a colossal effect on the world scene, and as a result we cannot responsibly opt out of the debate on world affairs.”

Context and Culture Matter

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a growing number of people were becoming increasingly preoccupied with the nature of science, its diffusion and its impact on culture and society.  Science was at times seen to be the problem rather than the solution for social and economic ills.

Various movements centred on science for the people and science in society sprang up. States and institutions of higher learning adopted new structures for governing research. Around the world, national governments were exploring how to better manage social impacts of science, not to mention marshalling its potential for economic returns. Numerous forward-looking reports and studies were published, as well as popular books on the science-society interface. 

Canada was undergoing a major rethink of its governing instruments, including those for research. Following extensive consultations through various commissions and Senate hearings, it created new institutions to oversee the funding and impact of research, among them a nascent science ministry and science council to advise the federal government.

The Presence and Independence of Gerhard Herzberg (GH)

In this period of growing institutionalization of research, social unrest and uncertainty about the societal value of science, Gerhard Herzberg stepped up to make the case for Canadian research excellence and its importance to society and culture more generally. Outspoken, modest and a true gentleman, this German-born scientist had little time for the growing bureaucracy that, he felt, would constrain the flow of creativity and the independence of ideas.

He was fond of quoting the British philosopher Michael Polanyi, who said, famously, that any attempt at guiding scientific research towards a purpose other than its own is an attempt to deflect it from the advancement of science.”

Herzberg was born on Christmas Day in Hamburg, Germany. He loved astronomy as a child, but also had a classical liberal arts education in the sciences, maths, literature, and humanities. He enjoyed music, sang in a choir and felt that all citizens should consider “the works of art, literature and basic science as not merely the icing on the cake but as the essence of human existence”. 

He was awarded  the Nobel Prize  for chemistry in 1971 when he was well into his research career at the National Research Council (NRC). He noted that the medal had this inscription: Inventas vitam juvat excoluisse per artes, which translated, was ‘ it is wonderful to see life enriched by the invention of the arts’.

Herzberg believed in the importance of his liberal education: “I was brought up in a school (gymnasium) in which freedom of choice did not exist. At that period in my life, I resented very much the time and effort which I had to spend on writing essays on literary subjects, on history and similar topics, and would have preferred to spend all my time on science and mathematics. In retrospect, however, I feel grateful to a system that did not give me the freedom to avoid literary subjects. Quite apart from widening of my horizon, the need for writing essays was an extremely important preparation for writing scientific papers and scientific books (and speeches like this one)… it seems to me that the universities should press for less choice in the high school curriculum to ensure that those students who want to study the humanities or the social sciences have a good grounding in mathematics and natural science and, conversely, that those students who intend to go into the natural sciences have a strong basic training in the humanities.”

He was especially fortunate to study at one of the centres of excellence for mathematics and physics–Goettingen, Germany.  Prof. Herzberg married a physics student, Luise Herzberg (neé Oettinger), who earned a Ph.D. But she was Jewish and in the Nazi period, her religion meant the Herzbergs had to flee Germany when the situation became untenable. The question was, move where?  As it happens in many such cases, the answer lay in the combination of luck and unique circumstances.

John Spinks, a future president of the University of Saskatchewan (1960-1975) joined Herzberg and his wife Luise in Darmstadt in 1934 as a postdoc, and worked with him in his laboratory. Through a contact Spinks had with the Carnegie Foundation  of New York City, which had established a fund for refugees from Nazi Germany to move to Commonwealth universities, Herzberg was able to land in Saskatoon as a guest professor in 1935. 

Bridging Cultures

Herzberg was interested in the chasm that existed between the so-called two cultures of science and the humanities. “In spite of this fundamental difference in their attitude to the past,” he argued, “there is no intrinsic reason why a scientist should not have some knowledge and appreciation of art, literature and music, or why a humanist (or lawyer or politician) should not have some knowledge and appreciation of science and mathematics.”

Herzberg fully understood the meaning of overcoming this communication gap for the benefit of the planet and its citizens. “The lack of understanding between scientists and non-scientists is positively dangerous at a time when the applications of science determine more and more of our lives, when indeed the survival of the human race is dependent on our ability to apply our scientific knowledge to overcome the undesirable effects of technology (pollution, overpopulation, etc.) and to remove the great disparity in the standard of living between the developed and the developing world.”

In today’s world, scientists have a responsibility to clearly communicate the impacts of their research, a duty that Herzberg anticipated half a century ago. “Clearly when we want to apply the discoveries made in pure science, the question of responsibility for the consequences must come up. An original discovery is neither good nor bad. It is the public and the politicians who have to decide whether to apply it, e.g., to build high-voltage lines or nuclear reactors, etc. or other applications and accept the risks involved. Scientists do have the responsibility to communicate to the public and the political leaders the basic knowledge needed to make such decisions.”


In November 2019, a small collection of speeches, essays and articles by Herzberg was published (The Value of Science in Society and Culture: Selections from the Speeches, Essays and Articles of Gerhard Herzberg), with a book launch held to mark the occasion at the NRC, where he had spent 45 years of his life. Several guests offered tributes, including one from Canada’s Chief Science Advisor, Dr Mona Nemer. “It struck me that his views from the 1960s, 70 and 80s are as relevant today as they were when he wrote and spoke them, in fact, more so,” she said. “And that we should strive to enable students to experience diverse disciplines in both the arts and the sciences, so that they don’t become too specialized too early.”

Given his German upbringing, a speech by the German ambassador Sabine Sparwasser also highlighted Herzberg`s legacy. As the ambassador remarked, he looked beyond the boundaries of his field of research to reflect on wider issues of its impact on society and culture. “Gerhard Herzberg’s personal experience, his rich life as a researcher and his love of the arts provided him with deep insights,” she said. “It is now up to us to put these into practice, in order to preserve free and open science and at the same time our free and open societies.”

The Herzberg50 project is particularly relevant and timely. During the pandemic and other major crises such as climate change, rapid advances in research frontiers in many fields have proven that science will be a critical ally in helping to rebuild and attain a `new normal.’

Ultimately, our future depends on creative people working collaboratively with passion and perseverance to advance knowledge, just as Herzberg did in his years at the forefront of Canada’s science establishment.

In November 2019, a small collection of speeches, essays and articles by Herzberg was published (The Value of Science in Society and Culture: Selections from the Speeches, Essays and Articles of Gerhard Herzberg (edited by A.M. Herzberg and P. Dufour), Queen’s University, 2019), with a book launch held to mark the occasion at the NRC, where he had spent 45 years of his life.