Dudley Herschbach Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Science and Society: Conversation with Dudley Herschbach, 1986 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry; Frank B. Baird, Jr., Professor of Science, Harvard University; September 29, 2005, by Harry Kreisler

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Background

Professor Herschbach, welcome to Berkeley.

Very glad to be here.

Welcome back to Berkeley, I should say. Where were you born and raised?

San Jose, third generation native of San Jose.

Aha, California. Now looking back, how do you think your parents shaped your thinking about the world?

Well, of course they had a huge impact. In particular, I well remember, since I was the first of our family to go to college (in fact we knew no one who had gone to college) that they were dubious, they were wary, they warned me. They heard there were a lot of egghead professors that had funny ideas and certainly impractical ideas. It wasn't clear there'd be anything worthwhile that I would learn there, but a danger I might be too arrogant afterwards to work with my hands. I was sort of on my guard when I arrived at Stanford, where I was lucky enough to go as an undergraduate.

Your parents had a farm, so your early life was a farming life in San Jose.

Well, near San Jose, out toward Campbell and Saratoga area. I went to a grammar school with eighty kids in four rooms, two grades per room, graduating class of eleven. It gives you an idea of what it was like then. High school was about 250 people, and that was kids in Campbell. But yes, we had several acres. We had potatoes, we had cows that I milked every day for some years, in the summer I picked prunes and cut apricots, later walnuts. I remember how the kids who did that in the late season, picking walnuts, their hands would be stained yellow and it wouldn't go away for a few weeks and there was sort of a stigma attached to that. For me, it didn't bother me, it was a badge of honesty.

Looking back, what did you learn from that farming life that affected you later in life? Did it make you a better scientist?

It might have, because I worked a lot with my dad, who was a builder. He built houses one at a time. He drew the plans. He'd studied to be an architect in an Oakland school, not a college but a special school. Of course, he came out in the depths of the Depression just when I was born, in 1932, no future for architects. So, he went into building, which he knew something about because his dad had been a builder. But his company failed in the Depression, had to take second mortgages and too many of them failed. So after that, he just built houses one at a time, and his three sons would work with him. I heard my dad talk a lot about, "This is the way a good mechanic would do it." By that, he meant a proud craftsman who wasn't going to cut any corners but put extra bracing, even where it wouldn't be seen, and all of the rest. So that certainly was a powerful influence. In fact, my dad had a favorite saying that has been the motto of my research group: "The difficult we do immediately, the impossible takes a little longer." I think the second phrase appealed a lot to a kid, it was kind of a heroic thing. My mother had nothing beyond a high school education but she was very interested in culture and music and reading, and she had a great influence on all her kids.

Did you have any teachers, say as a high school student, that pointed you in the direction of science? Of course at Stanford you must have had many who influenced you to turn to science.

That's right. I had a high school chemistry teacher, John Meischke, who in fact had a master's degree from Berkeley, who was terrific, wonderful teacher, he absolutely knew his stuff. When I took freshman chemistry later at Stanford, I discovered how good my high school course was.

In other classes at this Campbell high school I learned a lot, even though the teachers weren't particularly well prepared. For instance, the very first class I had was in algebra. The instructor walks in and he says, "I don't know much about algebra but I know one thing. I've just come from serving in artillery corps in the Second World War and if we calculated something the right way and we got the wrong answer, and then shelled our own troops, we got no credit. So, you'll get no credit if you have the right method but the wrong answer." Within a few weeks there were several kids in the class who had a better grip on algebra than he did but that was no sweat for him. He regarded his job as a former military man is to make sure that the privates and corporals do things up to snuff, so he got us to explain to him and our classmates what we understood or thought we understood about what was going on. So, it was really very effective, the same way all the way through, so we had a special experience because so many of our teachers had come from the Second World War and without any preachiness or any overt discussion of it, they were conveying something about the seriousness of learning what you could and taking advantage of it.

What about Stanford? Any teachers stand out there?

Oh, absolutely. Why, the very first day I met my first professor ever, and he was Harold Johnston, now retired from Berkeley where he later went and became a very, very distinguished scientist. But this first day he was a very shy assistant professor, but he told us immediately, this little group of six advisees that gathered with him a day before classes began, something that opened my eyes immediately. He said a university exists to preserve, transmit, and create knowledge. Well, I knew they had libraries, and all that, and knew the transmission was, as in high school, teaching. I had no idea about research. I think I had probably heard of it first that day. Then he told us a little about his own research, which was in a field called chemical kinetics, trying to unravel what governs how rapidly chemical reactions occur. Usually they're multi-step processes and it's very tricky to figure out what may really be going on with the tools that were available then. But it got me very interested in the basic field, and later that was a key part of my own research.

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