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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Dudley Herschbach

Nobel Prize Winner

By Eliza M. Nguyen, Crimson Staff Writer

When 1986 Nobel laureate and Harvard professor emeritus Dudley R. Herschbach was 11 years old, he discovered an issue of National Geographic during a visit to his grandmother’s house. Inside the magazine, the young scientist found “gorgeous” star maps—designed by Donald H. Menzel, former chair of the Harvard Astronomy department—that Herschbach says sparked his interest in science.

Though Herschbach, at that time a farm boy in rural California, had never heard of Harvard, he would later become not only a Junior Fellow and a Nobel Prize-winning chemist at the same institution as Menzel, but also a House master and an inspirational mentor for many students.

A SCIENTIFIC “GENIUS”

As an undergraduate, Herschbach received a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Stanford University. After completing college, he stayed in Palo Alto for another year to get a master’s degree in chemistry before moving to Cambridge, where he would earn a master’s in physics and a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from Harvard.

Herschbach was also a gifted athlete. He was recruited to Stanford as a football player—though he chose to take an academic scholarship instead—and was invited to try out for the Los Angeles Rams in his sophomore year. Herschbach turned down the offer in favor of continuing his education.

The young man’s scientific potential was recognized early in his career. In 1957, shortly before he received his Ph.D., Herschbach was awarded a Harvard Junior Fellowship—an accolade honoring “exceptional ability, originality, resourcefulness ... and intellectual achievement” in young scholars. The fellowship allows recipients to freely pursue research at Harvard for three years, according to the Society of Fellows website.

In the years that followed, Herschbach proved to be an extremely prolific scientist, publishing over 400 scholarly articles over the duration of his career.

But his most noteworthy achievement was his research using crossed molecular beams, which won him the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1986.

With co-recipients Yuan T. Lee and John C. Polanyi, the Harvard professor showed that scientists could use molecular beams to understand the specific mechanisms of a chemical reaction, such as the orientations of the colliding molecules.

Before Herschbach’s discovery, chemists could only deduce a general picture of chemical processes. But despite the extraordinary potential of his research, Herschbach says that many other scientists were dubious, referring to it as “lunatic fringe chemistry.”

Overcoming this skepticism, Herschbach’s research team achieved what they had envisioned. He says their discovery provided scientists with important knowledge that allows them to work across scientific fields and integrate information from chemistry, physics, and biology.

A “TRANSFORMATIVE” MENTOR

Herschbach’s students describe the professor as a warm and inspirational man with a contagious enthusiasm for knowledge—something he attributes to the circumstances of his upbringing.

Growing up in San Jose, Calif., Herschbach says he never expected to go to college. As a boy, he milked cows and raised livestock in his rural hometown.

“We didn’t know any scientists,” he says. “We didn’t even know anyone who had gone to college.”

Herschbach says his farm-bred perspective allows him to instill in his students a passion for learning.

“My whole life is a result of getting to go to college,” he says. “It’s a fairy tale.”

Timothy C. Germann, a research scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, performed his graduate research under Herschbach’s tutelage. He says that while the Nobel laureate is a brilliant scientist, it was Herschbach’s enthusiasm and support that was instrumental in helping him successfully finish his thesis.

“[Herschbach’s] energy, his excitement—that mattered more than the specific research project,” Germann says.

Chair of the Department of Chemistry at Stanford Richard N. Zare ’61, who researched molecular beams with Herschbach as a graduate student, says his mentor had a significant impact on his life and career path.

“I had the feeling that I was working with a genius,” Zare says. “It was transformative for me to be with him.”

“ZANY AND WISE”

Herschbach has also left his mark on Harvard students as an instructor committed to science education.

When he taught Chemistry 10, a large introductory chemistry course, Herschbach says he used unconventional methods, such as including historical and philosophical context—and a poetry contest—within the curriculum, earning the class the nickname of “Chem Zen.”

After he retired in 2009 and was given the title of professor emeritus, Herschbach continued to inspire students by teaching a freshman seminar on nanotechnology.

Nicholas P. Stanford ’12, one of Herschbach’s seminar students, says Herschbach emphasized the importance of learning from peers who are passionate about a scientific topic.

“I would say that he is a combination of zany and wise,” says Stanford.

When he and his classmates went to see their professor speak in Currier House—where Herschbach and his wife, Georgene, served as house masters from 1981 to 1986—Stanford recalls that many important people lined up to speak with the Nobel laureate.

“But [Herschbach] wanted to talk to us about our research,” Stanford said. “It showed that he cared deeply for his students.”

While Herschbach no longer teaches in a classroom setting, he remains committed to education. He frequently attends science talent searches because he finds the young scientists inspiring, he says.

He is also an active advocate for the advancement of women in science. According to his wife, Herschbach understands the importance of including women on the faculty and was responsible for recruiting the first woman to the chemistry department at Harvard in 1979.

Anita Goel—Herschbach’s last Ph.D. student and the current Chairman, Scientific Director, and CEO of Nanobiosym, Inc.—says the Nobel laureate encourages his students to take scientific risks.

“He recognizes and cultivates brilliance,” she says. “He always used to say, ‘You know, you should behave like you’ve already won the Nobel Prize before you have it, and then after you have won the Nobel behave like you don’t have it.’”

—Staff writer Eliza M. Nguyen can be reached at enguyen@college.harvard.edu..

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