Benjamin Franklin's Junto
Dudley R. Herschbach
I was born in San Jose, California, on June 18, 1932, the first of what would be a lively brood of six kids. In my boyhood we lived in what was then a rural area of fruit trees, a few miles out in the country. For years I milked a cow, fed the pigs and chickens, and during summers picked prunes, apricots, and walnuts. From an early age I loved to read but was also very involved in outdoor activities, scouting and sports. My interest in science was excited at age eleven by an article on astronomy in National Geographic. For the next few years, I regularly made star maps and snuck out at night to make observations from a locust tree in our backyard.
In high school I took all the science and mathematics courses offered. Chemistry I found at first puzzling, and then most intriguing, thanks to a superb teacher. I also worked at a weekly newspaper, writing articles and setting type; it was then that I became a fan of Benjamin Franklin. Football was my favorite sport; perhaps that presaged my later pursuit of molecular collisions. Like most of my classmates, I did not expect to attend college; none of my known relatives had graduated from a university. However, my teachers and coaches encouraged me to go and I received offers of football scholarships from some schools to which I had not even applied for admission.
At Stanford University I found a new world with vastly broader intellectual horizons than I had imagined. Although I gladly played freshman football, after that season the lab and library already became for me much the more exciting playground. I completed a bachelor's degree in mathematics in 1954 and a masters in chemistry in 1955, went on to graduate school at Harvard to do a masters in physics in 1956 and a Ph.D. in chemical physics in 1958. Then I became a faculty member at the University of California, Berkeley, and undertook to study chemical reactions by means of molecular beams. That involved crossing two tenuous streams of reactant molecules within a vacuum chamber and attempting to detect product molecules formed in single-collisions occurring in the zone of intersection of the beams. Some senior colleagues said my research students and I were pursuing "lunatic fringe" of chemistry. At the time, it was a fair assessment.
However, this new field of molecular reaction dynamics flourished remarkably, especially after I returned to Harvard on the faculty in 1963. The method enabled a great deal to be learned about the forces that govern the making and breaking of chemical bonds, and how those result from the electronic structure of the molecules. Thereby it elucidated the most fundamental processes of chemistry.
This and other research adventures have been great fun, enhanced by the pleasure of teamwork with students and colleagues. I have much enjoyed teaching, particularly general chemistry for first-year students, my most challenging assignment. In recent years, I have been taking part in efforts to improve K-16 science education and public understanding of science; this involves many talks and TV programs, some of them featuring Benjamin Franklin. The most notable aspect of my career, I have found, is not the Nobel Prize of 1986 but my recent appearance as a guest voice on The Simpsons.