My speech at the launch of the biography of my father : LUSENET : Stats Forum for Keller-plan Course : One Thread

Earlier this evening there was a "book launch" of the new book about my father by Boris Stoicheff. The book is entitled "Gerhard Herzberg: An illustrious life in science". The book is published by NRC Press in association with McGill-Queen's Press. There was a launch last week in Ottawa and will be two further launches in the next few weeks (in Saskatoon and in Florida at a big Physics conference). The book launch this evening was at Massey College of the University of Toronto. There were at least 50 people there, many buying the book and getting the author to autograph it. There were speeches, including mine, which is reproduced below. I thought you might enjoy it and learn a bit more about my parents. After the launch there was a small dinner in the beautiful small private dining room in the college.

The founding master of the college in the early 1960s was the famous author Robertson Davies. (I refer to him in my speech.) The current master of the college is John Fraser, a former journalist. He introduced the speakers at the launch. Here is my speech.

Thank you, John, for inviting me to say a few words about Boris Stoicheff's book. It's astounding how much Boris has found out about the Herzbergs in the ten years he has been working. And it's a wonderful book--even though I have read drafts of most of it over the past few years, when I open the published book, I still find it hard to put down. As you know, Boris, I'm a born proof-reader--but I've only found a few tiny errors and I haven't come across anything major. When I was in kindergarten, the teacher found me sitting at a table moving my hands and fingers around like this .... She was puzzled and asked me what I was doing. I said I was proofreading. This has remained a life-long compulsion of mine.

I have been looking forward to a return visit to Massey College. I was here 30 years ago for a dinner honouring my father's Nobel Prize. I have two memories of that evening. I arrived early and was waiting in the entrance area. I read the statement carved in stone of the ideals of this college--the striving for truth, the colleagueship, and so on--all beautifully stated. But I was jolted when I came to a sentence which referred to these being the ideals of the men who would be the fellows of this college. At that moment, Dean Vincent Bladen arrived and I introduced myself. I pointed to the statement on the wall and the reference to men--I said that couldn't last, that women would have to be included. Bladen disagreed--he said the statement was fine and the restriction to men would continue. In preparation for this evening, my wife and I explored the Massey College web-site; I was struck by the pictures of junior fellows, many of whom are women.

I remember only a little of the actual dinner. Robertson Davies of course was there (and, Boris, I assume you were there). Then someone made a speech and pointedly said to my father that the University of Toronto had really hoped that he would have been a member of their faculty. There was, if I may say so here, a bit of a feeling of hurt that my father hadn't joined them. A few weeks ago I was going through the archives still remaining at home in Ottawa and came across letters from Bladen and Bissell in 1960 with an offer to come to the U of T. I'm sure, Boris, you have also seen these letters.

[By the way, I'm going to refer to my father as "Gerhard", which I always used when talking to him after he married Monika in 1972.]

How can I describe the qualities of Boris's book about Gerhard? Boris began his close association with Gerhard in 1951 when he joined NRC as a post-doctoral fellow. Boris was fortunate to be at NRC during the "Golden Years", as he calls them. Even after Boris returned to the U of T in 1964, Boris and Gerhard remained very close. Boris is renowned as being a gifted story-teller and he has certainly taken the opportunity to tell the magnificent story of my father's life at book-length. But Boris's individual stories are also memorable. I love re-reading the stories about Boris's first encounters with Gerhard at NRC--about Boris reading a paper of Gerhard's critically and about Boris's big success with the spectrum of benzene, and his worry that Gerhard would drop the priceless spectrographic plate.

Boris's book is such a success since he's worked hard to get the historical facts straight. Gerhard's files are huge and Boris has waded through all of them. He also visited all the places, in Germany and elsewhere, where Gerhard had been, in order to get a better feel for these places and to view archival material.

It's also such a success because he's an outstanding scientist himself and so can appreciate and describe what Gerhard did. Boris can even describe in layperson's language some of the intricacies of spectroscopy.

Of course, Boris wisely didn't include everything. One of my favourite stories of Gerhard comes from 1992, when I myself was just beginning to investigate the Herzberg story. (More about that in a moment.) I was in Ottawa interviewing some of my mother's former colleagues. One of these was Ted Hartz. Besides talking about my mother, Ted mentioned that he had been a student at the University of Saskatchewan and had been in Gerhard's Physics 2 class. After leaving Ted, I went to NRC to pick up Gerhard to take him home. We sat in his office for a while and I mentioned that Ted had been in his Physics class. Gerhard turned his chair to face the wall of bookshelves over his desk, reached to the first shelf, and pulled out a small record book, flipped a few pages and said: "Yes, Hartz was in the 1943 class and got a grade of A!" I was flabbergasted that this record book was so close at hand.

The really important topics are in the book. For example, Boris has described the post-war development of NRC and of science in Canada in considerable detail. Jack Mackenzie and Ned Steacie along with Gerhard built Canadian science after the war. This story shouldn't be forgotten. When I talk to my science colleagues at York University, I find that they know nothing of this history. (Our science library at York is even named after Steacie.) I suspect that older Canadian scientists, perhaps of Boris's generation, also don't know this story. My hope is that Boris's book will help create a collective memory.

One of my life regrets is that I didn't ever talk to my parents about their early lives. Partly, I imagine, this was due to their reluctance to talk about the horrors of Nazi Germany. Now in the last ten years, I have learned a great deal about their early lives, largely thanks to Boris's work.

My mother, Luise, died in 1971, shortly before the Nobel Prize. That she didn't live to see the prize still upsets me, as without her I don't believe Gerhard would have achieved it. And my own personal opinion, which I'm not sure Boris shares, is that Gerhard didn't really recognize how huge Luise's contribution was. But I realize that it would have been difficult for Boris to write about any of Gerhard's faults, given that Monika, Agnes, and I are still alive.

Gerhard had a very tough time in his first 30 years; for example, his father died when he was ten. But my mother had all the classic challenges of combining family and career, plus several especially hers--she was a refugee, she raised her children during the depression and World War 2, and she had very demanding parents who also had to leave Germany. Actually, Luise was one of the very few women of her generation who got a Ph.D. and had both a career and family. When she returned to her career, when Agnes and I were teenagers, she faced nepotism rules and only in her last 12 years did she obtain a position which recognized her stature as an independent scientist.

In 1992, I consulted a distinguished York historian about what to do about my parents' story. He pointed out that my father's story would undoubtedly be written and, in fact, Boris started within the next year. However, my mother would likely be forgotten. This galvanized me into action, as I realized that the principal source of information about my mother was my father, and he was already close to 90 years old. So in 1992 and 1993 I interviewed my father extensively, both about himself and about Luise. These notes have proven of some use to Boris and I am grateful for his acknowledgement of them. More so, I am grateful for his many references to Luise in his book (several, I might mention to Boris, not listed in the index).

So my retirement project is to write about my mother. Over the last ten years, before my retirement, I made some headway, but there is still lots for me to cover. However, I am very happy that even if I do not succeed in my project, we have Boris's wonderful book and the many details in there about my mother.

Let me conclude by quoting a couple of short excerpts from Boris's book. First, I love the epigraphs Boris has chosen for each chapter. For example, Gerhard often talked about how lucky he had been, particularly to land in Saskatoon in 1935. Boris's epigraph comes from Stephen Leacock: "I'm a great believer in luck--and I find the harder I work the more I have of it."

Second, here is a story from 1970. The Canadian Association of Physicists had honoured Gerhard by establishing the Herzberg Medal for young physicists. Boris writes:

[Gerhard] was genuinely touched by this tribute. On being shown the medal at the Spectroscopy Lab Christmas party that year, Herzberg approved of the vibrational level diagram of the hydrogen molecule on the one side and, on seeing a likeness of himself on the other side exclaimed. `But that doesn't look like me!' At this point Luise, remembering Picasso's reply to Gertrude Stein, who had made a similar comment on seeing the artist's painting of her, smiled and with a twinkle in her eye, calmly remarked, `Just wait'.

So, Boris, thank you for a magnificent work.

-- Anonymous, September 18, 2002

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