Celebrating a legend in Canadian science and his legacy
From mining deep into the earth to measuring the distance to the stars, Dr. Gerhard Herzberg's seminal work on molecular spectroscopy opened doors to a spectrum of scientific discovery. His work and accomplishments that span far beyond 50 years ago continue to impact countless research fields across Canada and the world.
Nobel Prize medal
Nobel Prize certificate
When Dr. Gerhard Herzberg began his pioneering work in physics, very little was known about atoms or how they combined to form molecules. By the time he won his Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1971, Dr. Herzberg was nicknamed the "founding father of molecular spectroscopy" for his formative work discovering some of the simplest and most important molecules in the universe.
50 years later, we commemorate his Nobel Prize and groundbreaking research. At the NRC, we are particularly proud to recognize his contributions to research excellence, through his 50 years of service.
Today, leading research and discoveries in far-ranging fields can be traced back to fundamentals uncovered by Dr. Herzberg. From astronomy to medical imaging, mining and nanotechnology, his far-reaching impact speaks to the significant impact of his work.
About Dr. Gerhard Herzberg
One of Canada's greatest scientists was born in Hamburg, Germany on December 25, 1904. Following high school, Gerhard Herzberg first set his sights on astronomy but was told not to pursue that path without private funding. Without enough money to pursue astronomy, he enrolled in the field of physics.
Dr. Herzberg came to Canada in 1935 to work at the University of Saskatchewan where he began to write the first of his three seminal textbooks on molecular spectroscopy.
In 1948, Dr. Herzberg began working at the NRC. With funding and staff, he set up a new spectroscopic lab that would soon unveil discoveries that would change our understanding of the nature of matter. His contributions to the knowledge of electronic structure and geometry of molecules, particularly free radicals, would later lead to his 1971 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
Highlights from the NRC Herzberg Archives
The impact of Dr. Gerhard Herzberg's work, today
- Dr. Herzberg's impact on co-workers: Benoit Simard
- Dr. Herzberg's impact on co-workers: James E. Hesser
Spectroscopy team, 1997
Top row: J. Johns, J. Watson, J. Towle, H.P. Loock, N.Yee, I. Dabrowski
Middle row: T. Amano, N. Kikuchi, M. Barnett, D. S. Yang, A. Kielar, C. Harris, M. Brookes
Bottom row: A. R. M. McKellar, G. Herzberg, B. Simard, L. Beaty
Dr. Herzberg's impact on co-workers: Benoit Simard
"It was a privilege and an honour to work in the group founded by Dr. Herzberg and to have known him. The discussions we had impacted my scientific career greatly, as it did for many researchers worldwide. His fame was universal and contributed to making the NRC a top-notch research organization. He attracted the best minds in the world. His creativity, hard work, perseverance, integrity, research excellence and universal friendship are traits that still drive the NRC today."
Donald C. Morton (Director General, Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics), GH, James E. Hesser (Director, Dominion Astrophysical Observatory, HIA).
Outside the entrance to the Plaskett Telescope, on the 75th anniversary of the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory and the meeting of the Canadian Astronomical Society at the University of Victoria, June, 1993.
Dr. Herzberg's impact on co-workers: James E. Hesser
"Throughout my mid-1960s graduate studies in Laboratory Astrophysics, Dr. Gerhard Herzberg's book, Molecular Spectra and Molecular Structure: I. Spectra of Diatomic Molecules, was my constant companion. My profound respect and admiration for Herzberg's inspiring scientific contributions and leadership influenced my late 1977 decision to join the NRC's Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics (now known as the Herzberg Astronomy and Astrophysics Research Centre) at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory in Victoria, British Columbia. Herzberg's extremely high scientific standards and relentless defense of fundamental research were respected across Canada. His encouragement at a few key career points are among my fondest memories."
His namesake: the Herzberg Astronomy and Astrophysics Research Centre
Dr. Herzberg first showed interest in astronomy as a teenager. Decades later, his interests came full circle. In 1974, the NRC combined its units in spectroscopy and astronomy, and named it the Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics (HIA). Dr. Herzberg worked at the Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics until he retired in 1995.
Today, the Herzberg Astronomy and Astrophysics Research Centre continues his legacy, as it develops spectroscopy instruments for some of the world's most powerful observatories.
"Dr. Herzberg was a Canadian science icon, whose discoveries left an indelible mark on astronomy. Today, we bear his name with pride as we put his foundational work into practice by designing and building advanced spectrographs for world-class observatories around the world to explore the nature of the many fascinating objects populating our Universe such as planets, stars and galaxies."
Defining Moments Canada: Herzberg50
This fall, Defining Moments Canada will be launching a virtual exhibit and pedagogical tools for the classroom, focused on Dr. Gerhard Herzberg.
Learn more about the Herzberg50 virtual exhibit by Defining Moments Canada:
- News release
- Virtual exhibit – launching in Fall 2021
- Pedagogical tools – launching in Fall 2021
Awards and professional associations
- Gerhard Herzberg, Nobel Prize Laureate
- Member, Royal Society of Canada
- University of Saskatchewan
- Carleton University
Awards named in Herzberg's honour
- Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada: Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal for Science and Engineering
- Canadian Association of Physicists: Herzberg Medal
1971 to 2021 Canada-Germany collaboration
- 50 years of science and technology cooperation to build a better future
- In honour of the 50-year anniversary of both Canada's scientific collaboration with Germany and Dr. Herzberg's Nobel Prize, the German Embassy is launching the Herzberg Network.