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Gerhard Herzberg’s Philosophy of Life and Science

By: Dimitry Zakharov

Dimitry Zakharov

Contributing Historian

Dimitry Zakharov is a PhD Candidate (ABD) in History at the University of Saskatchewan supervised by Dr. Erika Dyck. His research interests include the history of health and medicine, the history of biology, and the history and philosophy of science. His research focuses on the history of cancer and cancer research in the 19th century. His dissertation, titled Morbid Cluster: The Development of Cancer Knowledge in the 19th Century, explores the emergence of several different forms of cancer research in the 19th century which combined and adopted a range of ideas from cell theory pathology, early bacteriology, and even evolutionary theory of the time, to create distinct explanations for the problem
of cancer and tumor formation.

When it came to politics, Gerhard Herzberg was not especially active early in his career, but he did have a lot to say about government intervention in science. However, winning the Nobel Prize in 1971 expand his desire to speak out about the policy, social and philosophical issues that were important to him. His public pronouncements revealed his profound and unshakable belief in not only the importance of knowledge, but the human mind’s will to know and understand nature and the natural world. Herzberg felt that the will to know represented a moral obligation, not just for scientists, philosophers and artists, but for every individual.

The Bureaucratization of Science

Herzberg kept clear of conventional politics as memories of the rise of the Nazis in Germany during his university years had left lasting negative impressions. He had witnessed firsthand the damage and horror caused by political slogans, and he brought these views with him to Canada.           

Edgar William Richard Steacie. Image courtesy of The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

During the war, he had faced entirely different challenges, this time with federal bureaucrats, in trying to obtain permission to work on war-time research. Herzberg’s frustrations with bureaucracy continued when he joined the National Research Council, a federal agency, as he had concerns about his independence as a scientist. NRC president Edgar W. R. Stecie had to provide several assurances that Herzberg would have complete intellectual control over his research pursuits, as well as ample financial support for the equipment he needed. After he was appointed as the NRC’s director of the physics division, the agency hired another NRC scientist, L. E. Howlett, to serve as co-director and look after most of the administrative duties so Herzberg could focus on his spectroscopy research.

In 1955, the NRC split up the division into a pure physics section and another for applied physics, with Howlett as the head of the latter. Herzberg disagreed with this decision,[i] as he did not consider pure and applied physics to be distinct subjects, especially because one had been deemed useful for governments and industry while the other continually had to justify the importance of basic research.[ii] Herzberg ardently believed that basic physics enabled applied physics. (This bifurcation of the NRC’s physics division lasted until 1969, when Howlett retired. Under his successor, A. E. Douglas, the two divisions were re-united.)[iii]

In a 1965 speech, Herzberg made clear his disdain for bureaucratic incursions into science.[iv] Noted the efficiency of the original Research Council Act of 1917, which gave birth to the NRC and protected it from “the danger of government control and administration of research,” Herzberg pointed out that one of the greatest benefits of the NRC’s original organization was that it excused research scientists of administrative duties, like grant writing. By the mid-1960s, he explained, university faculty were spending a month out of the year with paperwork — a burden that didn’t fall on the shoulders of NRC scientists.[v] Bureaucratic busywork stifled research, and Herzberg believed the NRC’s early approach, implemented by Steacie, had been a major reason for the NRC’s international success.[vi]

Herzberg critique extended to Canada’s science policy. He felt it was illogical for government to try to guide science and attempt to predict future applications. As he said in a 1969 speech, science policy which always sought practical applications was not only short-sighted but damaging to science.

During the speech, he quoted a famous line attributed to the British physicist Michael Faraday. Asked by the Prince of Wales to describe the “practical use” for his invention, electromagnetic induction, Faraday reportedly replied, “Sir, of what use is a new-born baby?”

Technology that led to masers and lasers could be traced to research abandoned by the Bell Telephone Company but then rediscovered by Charles H. Townes who created the first maser (microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation), and subsequently won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1964.[vii]

In his speech, Herzberg also pointed out that, until his death in 1937, Ernst Rutherford, the father of nuclear physics, did not believe nuclear energy would ever be useful. Only five years later, the work of Enrico Fermi in Chicago ushered in the nuclear age.[viii] In this case, Herzberg noted, even the scientist could not anticipate the applications of his discoveries. And if the scientist was not able to predict the path, what chance did government bureaucrats have?

Science and Society

Herzberg’s views on the fraught relationship between science and government revealed his larger philosophical worldview about the role of knowledge and inquiry in society. He truly loved the pursuit of knowledge and he recognized a similar outlook among others who create: artists, poets, and musicians, whose works provoked the spirit and the mind. For Herzberg, in fact, a scientific discovery held the same appeal as a work of art. As he put it, “Are not the supreme moments of the human race those in which a man of genius creates a work of art of eternal beauty or recognizes a law of nature or of though that contributes in a significant way to our understanding of the universe we live in?”[ix]

“Gerhard Herzberg at podium.” Dr. Gerhard Herzberg Fond, The National Research Council of Canada.

This quotation describes much about Herzberg’s personal philosophy. He believed that certain ideas were simply of a higher quality, and exemplified excellence. Not everyone was able to create such accomplishments, yet Herzberg believed it was the role of education to expose students to great works of science and culture so that they could learn how to distinguish inferior from superior work and how to question the integrity of a theory or argument. Herzberg also believed that overconfident young people need to learn intellectual humility by understanding the thoroughness of the great thinkers of the past.[x]

Herzberg, interestingly, acknowledged that someone who was a genius in one field may have a lesser grasp in other disciplines. An honest intellect, he felt, recognized its own limitations, and scientists were not excused from this axiom.

Indeed, Herzberg pointed out that some scientists were guilty of some sort of ignorance that they condemned in the lay-public. He cited novelist and chemist Charles P. Snow’s famous observation about the communications gap between intellectuals in the humanities and their counterparts in the natural sciences. Herzberg viewed this division, as prominent today as it was in the 1960s, as a dangerous road for humanity to travel, given that “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 developing countries.”[xi]

Herzberg believed in a commonsense solution to this miscommunication: scientists needed to take more interest in culture and the humanities, while the lay-public and humanist intellectuals had to make more of an effort to understand scientists, or at least a basic understanding of the principles and practices of science. He also rejected nationalist, ideological, racial, or ethnic boundaries as superfluous and divisive categories. A single species should not waste its efforts on conflict and war and rather turn its attention to the beauty of nature and the human mind’s quest for knowledge.

Conclusion

By all accounts, Herzberg was an atheist and a scientific realist or, as he jokingly said, a “naïve realist.” Thanks to his education and scientific training, he had little time for the worship of leaders or political ideologies that were just as irrational as a belief in God. From his youth, Herzberg had dreamed of becoming an astronomer. Perhaps his interest in looking up at the stars informed his sense of the insignificance of our world, and the pettiness of its disputes. In cosmic terms, humanity’s existence is fleeting, little more than a speck of dust in the wind.

Yet for Herzberg, the tininess of humanity did not render pointless our quest for knowledge about the universe.[xii] He believed that knowing and understanding the universe meant knowing ourselves, and potentially answering the grand philosophical questions about purpose and existence. Herzberg did not want to remain chained to the wall of the cave, in Plato’s famous allegory. He wanted to venture outside.

Dr. Gerhard Herzberg portrait 1964.
“Dr. Gerhard Herzberg, Director of the Division of Pure Physics, National Research Council of Canada, portrait, 1964.” Dr. Gerhard Herzberg Fond, The National Research Council of Canada.

[i] Gerhard Herzberg, “Molecular Spectroscopy: A Personal History,” Annual Review of Physical Chemistry 36 No. 1 (1985): 22.

[ii] Gerhard Herzberg, “Pure Science and Government,” in The Value of Science in Society and Culture, ed. Agnes M. Herzberg and Paul Dufour, (self-pub., 2019): 17.

[iii] Gerhard Herzberg, “Molecular Spectroscopy: A Personal History,” Annual Review of Physical Chemistry 36 No. 1 (1985): 22.

[iv] Gerhard Herzberg, “Bureaucracy in Science,” in The Value of Science in Society and Culture, ed. Agnes M. Herzberg and Paul Dufour, (self-pub., 2019): 29-36.

[v] Gerhard Herzberg, “Pure Science and Government,” in The Value of Science in Society and Culture, ed. Agnes M. Herzberg and Paul Dufour, (self-pub., 2019): 18.

[vi] Herzberg, “Pure Science and Government,” 17-18.

[vii] Gerhard Herzberg, “The Dangers of Science Policy” Convocation Address at York University, (unpublished, 1969): 3-4.

[viii] [viii] Gerhard Herzberg, “The Dangers of Science Policy” Convocation Address at York University, (unpublished, 1969): 3.

[ix] Gerhard Herzberg, “Remarks on the Boundaries of Knowledge,” Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada 12 (1974): 29.

[x] Gerhard Herzberg, “The Tensions between Excellence and Relevance,” in The Value of Science in Society and Culture, ed. Agnes M. Herzberg and Paul Dufour, (self-pub., 2019): 43-44.

[xi] Gerhard Herzberg, “Science, Society and Culture,” in The Value of Science in Society and Culture, ed. Agnes M. Herzberg and Paul Dufour, (self-pub., 2019): 51.

[xii] Gerhard Herzberg, “The Nature and Origins of the Universe,” in The Value of Science in Society and Culture, ed. Agnes M. Herzberg and Paul Dufour, (self-pub., 2019): 81.