Stimulating Young Minds, Gerhard Herzberg Speaking to Students

Dr. Gerhard Herzberg believed in the importance of science in society, he believed in the role of basic science and research for advancement in society. For him, this meant comprehensive science education, open science policy and accessible science communication. Educating the public was key for Herzberg and he spent much of his career giving lectures and talks to audiences of all types. Not only did he speak directly to other scientists and academics at universities, but whenever he could Herzberg also spoke with younger students, answering their science questions and trying to inspire young minds.

Gerhard Herzberg was a professor at the University of Saskatchewan, he was director of the National Research Council, he was a physicist, and astrophysicist, a chemist, a spectroscopist. In 1971, he was awarded a Nobel Prize for Chemistry and, consequentially, also became an important public figure. With this came invitations to contribute to research, to give lectures at universities and to attend important functions, but also letters. Tons of letters.

His problem was he was too nice. He couldn’t refuse an interview. Anybody who wanted any information from him – he was willing to. He was always had an open door to anybody, and this didn’t really stop when he had had the prize

Izabel Dabrowski

We’ve put together a collection of examples of Herzberg speaking and interacting with young people. Through these letters and video, you will see how much Herzberg cherished these interactions and how genuinely he believed in stimulating the scientific minds of students of all ages.

Kim Snow, 6th grade

Have you ever had to write a letter to a famous person as a school project? Did they reply? Herzberg’s archives are full of letters from scientists or professors asking for his advice or his time, but occasionally you also find letters from students like Kim Snow. Why do you think Dr. Herzberg took the time to reply to Kim’s letter?


Dear Gerhard Herzberg,

Hello my name is Kim Snow, I am writing from Avon Middle School in Avon, Ohio. Our science teacher asked us to write to a scientist and I picked you. I looked you up in a Current Biography.

I am in the 6th grade.

I have some questions to ask you.

Why did you choose to be a physicist? Do you enjoy it? 

Is it true that you won a Nobel Prize?

How many inventions did you make?

Did you really write 5 books?

Did you win any more awards? I think you did.

Will you please write back? The school address is 36600 Detroit Rd, Avon, Ohio

Well science class is over now, so bye.

Kim Snow

P.S. Write Back


17 March 1975

Dear Kim,

Thanks for your nice letter. Not all your questions are easy to answer but I will try.

Why did I choose to become a physicist? Because physics is an interesting subject which tells us about the nature of things. I have never regretted making this choice and still enjoy doing physics.

Although I am a physicist I won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1971. This was because my work is on the borderline between physics and chemistry.

“How many inventions did you make?”. I didn’t really make any inventions, but rather some discoveries of new things in physics and chemistry. They are described in some 200 individual scientific papers but it is not so easy that one can simply count how many new discoveries are mentioned.

I did write five books in addition to the 200 scientific papers. The five books have a total of over 2000 pages.

I did win a number of other awards but I fear they are a little too numerous to write down. One of them was the Linus Pauling Medal of the American Chemical Society, which I also got in 1971.

I hope this letter will increase your interest in physics and chemistry.

Best wishes,

Sincerely yours,

G. Herzberg.

Claude Coulombe, High School

Today, scientific articles and resources of all types are easily available for scientists, students, and amateurs alike. However, before the internet and home computers, these resources were not as openly accessible. Without the possibility of an internet image search for the spectra of a comet, and if your local library was not subscribed to scientific academic journals, where would you find the information you wanted for a school project? This student in Rivière-du-Loup decided to write to Dr. Herzberg with his questions. Have a look at Herzberg’s response and the quantity of resources he sent back, and see Claude’s reply. How inspiring do you think it was for this small-town high school student to receive all this from a Nobel Laureate?


Dear Sir, I write you behalf the “Physic Science Club of Riviere-du-Loup” to ask you some information on comets and particularly on 1973f (Kohoutek).

As seen, my club is actually making an audio-visual on comets, would you like sending us some photographs of Kohoutek itself and of its spectroscopic emission. You have my congratulations for the identification of ortho H2O+ in the tail of spectra of comments 1973f and 1963I.

If you have something about the Kohoutek’s compound would you send us with some information about the comets treated in a general way.

Scientifically yours,

Claude Coulombe.


Dear Mr. Coulombe,

In accordance with your request on behalf of the Physics Science Club of Rivière du Loup I am sending you an original print of Comet Kohoutek as obtained on 18 January 1974, as well as a xerox copy of a photograph taken one day later, to show the very striking changes that took place in this short period. Both were taken by Dr. Benvenuti at Asagio Observatory in Italy. I am also enclosing a reprint of a paper by Dr. Lew and myself on the identification of the H2O+ which shows spectrograms of the comet obtained by Drs. Wehinger and Wyckoff at Wise Observatory in Israel and Dr. Herbig at Lick Observatory. I am also sending a copy of an issue of the NRC publication “Science Dimension” which contains an article on the same subject. Lastly, for a general review on comets I would refer you to the attached copy of an article by Dr. Whipple in “Scientific American”.

I trust that this material will take care of your needs.

With best wishes,

Sincerely yours,

G. Herzberg.


Dear Mr. Herzberg,

I am hurrying to thank you so much for your answer. Behalf of the “Physics Science Club of Riviere-du-Loup” thankfull about the best informations.

Photographs are very interesting. The head and Kohoutek’s tail are likely to assume an irregular appearance from one night to the next. Also, photographs of ortho H2O+ spectra and the explanations about its identification in the comet’s tail spectra have been usefull. The article in The Astrophysical Journal covers a particular attract.

Truly, it’s the greatest discovery in astronomy of the year. Our audio-visual isn’t finished yet, but it will be done in March.

Again, thanks and continue your diligent and interesting research.

Scientifically yours,

Claude Coulombe

Glebe Collegiate, High School

Watch this video to hear the story of when Gerhard Herzberg was asked by a colleague to speak at a high school. Herzberg accepted gladly and gave a memorable talk, apparently his first to a group of young students in roughly 40 years. Can you imagine how refreshing such a talk may have been for Dr. Herzberg, and do you see how he cherished these opportunities?

Michael Rath, Undergraduate

As a famous scientist, Herzberg was often asked to attend events or give lectures at conferences and events. These invitations multiplied after his Nobel Prize in 1971. This exchange is between Dr. Herzberg and Michael Rath of the McGill Student Physics Society shows an example of such an invitation, but for a more informal talk to a group of university students. Do you notice Herzberg’s interest for this different type of interaction?


Dear Dr. Herzberg,

The executive of the McGill Student Physics Society would very much like to have you address our club sometime during the second term. Our meetings are held each Wednesday from 1:00 to 2:00pm. Because of April examinations, a talk in February would probably be optimally attended.

Many of our members, having staggered through a rather concise treatment of molecular physics, are most anxious to meet you. Should you be available we would, of course, cover all the expenses incurred by your trip.

Hoping to hear from you soon,

Michael Rath


Dear Mr. Rath :

I do appreciate very much your kind invitation to address the McGill Student Physics Society sometime during the second term,

I have been inundated with requests for lectures and speeches ever since the Nobel Prize was announced, and unfortunately the month of February is already taken up with far too many commitments. By invitation of Principal Bell I have, however, agreed to give a more formal lecture on 6 March at McGill, and I hope that your Society will consider this lecture as a substitute for a more direct and informal address to you. I hope that there will be an opportunity on that day for me to meet with some of the students and I also hope that during the next academic year I can come to McGill again to present a more informal address to the Student Physics Society.

I hope you will understand my present difficulties,

Sincerely yours,

G. Herzberg.