A review of the new book about my father

greenspun.com : LUSENET : Stats Forum for Keller-plan Course : One Thread

Today's National Post has a review of Boris Stoicheff's book. The review is written by the master of Massey College, John Fraser, who had alerted me last week that his review would be published today. It's a good review and points out, what I have also noticed, that you can't find the book in book-stores! I thought you would be interested in it.


All saw his genius, but none wanted him

A new biography illuminates the life of Nobel Prize-winning physicist and wartime émigré Gerhard Herzberg

John Fraser--Saturday Post

In 1933, Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany and, within two months, the Weimar Republic had gasped its last and the Nazi "passing phase" began to settle in with a vengeance. In the university town of Darmstadt, a brilliant young physics researcher and teacher named Gerhard Herzberg was making his name in the German and international scientific world as the exciting new realm of quantum mechanics was gathering academic momentum. Like many in Germany at that time, he tried hard to reason himself out of the political whirlwind.

Most academics would reject Naziism, he felt. His own work in the emerging world of spectroscopy--the light emitted and absorbed by atoms and molecules--would be respected. As for his venerated scientific mentor, James Franck--Nobel Laureate, holder of two Iron Crosses for bravery in the Great War, from a family of patriotic and now agnostic Sephardic Jews--he was surely safe from this nonsense Herzberg was hearing about the new order.

All this was catastrophically wrong, of course. Our own 20/20 historical hindsight makes the initial intellectual prevarication of young Professor Gerhard Herzberg in Darmstadt seem naive. But in Gerhard Herzberg: An Illustrious Life in Science (McGill-Queen's University Press), Boris Stoicheff's luminous new biography of the man, it is just possible to get your mind around and out of the way of history and understand what an infernal nuisance the Nazis must have been at the beginning. When will they go away and let me get on with my research!

In short order, Herzberg--loyal acolyte to "the Jew Franck" and, himself, married to a Jew--did wake up, but waking up did not mean it was easy to get out. It seemed everyone he contacted for help in academic and scientific circles outside Germany recognized his genius and even understood something of his plight, but no one quite wanted him and his young wife. Well, almost no one. A year earlier, a young chemistry researcher from Canada named Dr. John Spinks had written Herzberg, asking his permission to join him in his exciting spectroscopy research. "Where on earth is Saskatoon, Saskatchewan?" Herzberg asked his wife, Luise, the day he got the letter. They actually looked it up in an atlas and stared in amazement at a place so far away and lost in the barrenness of Canada.

Within two years, though, with Spinks's help, that's where they would end up, with $2.50 to their name. Lucky Herzbergs. They had made it beyond all the dreary shoulder-shrugging and were safe from the gathering terror in Germany. Even if Gerhard had no hope of easily replacing the sophisticated and expensive research equipment he'd left behind in Germany, he could at least continue to dream about potential research. Lucky Saskatoon. Lucky University of Saskatchewan. Their perspicacity, in the middle of the Great Depression, brought to the Prairies the internationally recognized father of molecular spectroscopy, the future head of the physics division of the National Research Council and a Nobel Laureate whose pioneering work in physics (working with atomic hydrogen and helium) and chemistry (the determination of many molecular structures) also led to Nobel-rewarded work in related fields.

The story of Herzberg's early life, his struggles in Canada, his inspiring research and the incredible job he did in transforming the National Research Council of Canada into an internationally significant institution makes for thrilling reading. The biography, out this month, is clearly a labour of love. The author, Boris Stoicheff, is himself one of Canada's most outstanding physicists and, like Herzberg, an immigrant (from Macedonia, in Stoicheff's case) with a faith in this country and what it can achieve with modest means that is a daunting challenge to the current mood of national doubt and self-laceration.

You can tell from the title--Gerhard Herzberg: An Illustrious Life in Science--that it's an old-fashioned sort of biography, and that's good news. Had Stoicheff wanted a mainstream publisher and an immediate rocket to the best-seller list, he should have avoided Herzberg's name altogether because most Canadians don't even know who their real heroes are. And that adjective, "illustrious," would have to go. No dark tales from the libido here, no striking account of a massive ego out of control and terrorizing subordinates. Herzberg was kindly, a devoted husband and father, an achiever who was tempted once after the war to go to plush research precincts at the University of Chicago, but returned to Canada three years later because his family liked the life here.

Instead of a torrid tale, Stoicheff has written an inspiring one about what Harvard's Dudley Herschbach calls "the quiet drama of the life and work of a great scientist and a splendid man." Yet any veneration never gets in the way of righteous anger. Despite all the achievements of the National Research Council, or perhaps because of them, bureaucratic and political intrusions on pure research--which had led to so many amazing breakthroughs in which Canadians were the trail-blazers--began to grow like Topsy during the Trudeau ascendancy. Herzberg spoke out about it even as Treasury Board officials were snapping at his ankles. In fact, it was in the midst of great turmoil--slashed budgets, ignoramuses dictating science policy, research-staff reductions--that Herzberg's Nobel Medal was announced, which silenced his government oppressors for a few weeks.

This is an academic publication of the highest quality but also a good read. Even if (like me) you failed high-school physics, the tale remains engrossing, apart from a few necessarily complex pages. If you want to get the book, though, you will have to fight like the very devil with your friendly neighbourhood bookstore or chain to get it for you. It shouldn't be so. Boris Stoicheff has written an exciting book on a national hero who is one of the giants of 20th-century science. It is a measure of the dismal state of our own self-esteem as a country that its publication is almost covert.


Copyright 2002 National Post

-- Anonymous, September 28, 2002

Moderation questions? read the FAQ