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Robert Herman (1914–1997)

Published onJan 01, 1997
Robert Herman (1914–1997)

Robert Herman, L.P. Gilvin Centennial Professor in the Department of Civil Engineering and staff member of the Center for Statistical Mechanics at the University of Texas, Austin, died 13 February 1997.

Herman was born in New York City on 29 August 1914, and was educated in New York City public schools. He earned his undergraduate degree in physics from the City College of New York in 1935, while his PhD in physics was awarded by Princeton University in 1940. His dissertation advisor was originally E. U. Condon; after Condon's departure from Princeton, he worked with a committee headed by H. P. Robertson. His dissertation was on molecular structure and infrared spectroscopy.

Herman had a remarkable record, both as an undergraduate as well as throughout his career. He will be best known to readers of this note for his joint contributions with the author to the Big Bang cosmological model. I will therefore emphasize in this note his contributions in this area as well as his work in molecular structure and spectroscopy, which was of astrophysical interest. He was very productive scientifically, and switched quite freely between basic and applied science. As a graduate student at Princeton, he authored or coauthored fourteen papers, of which eight were on molecular spectra and structure, representing work done jointly with fellow graduate student Robert Hofstadter (later a Nobel Laureate).

His career count of papers was over 270, in many of which he was co-author, as well as several books of which he was co-author or co-editor. A scan of his publications shows research ranging from theory of high energy electron scattering as a tool to explore nuclear structure, to the application of statistical mechanics and operations analysis techniques generally to vehicular traffic flow, a field which he pioneered, to astrophysics, where he published on the spectra of astrophysically interesting molecules, and to cosmology, particularly physics in the Big Bang model.

Herman spent his first year after the PhD at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering, University of Pennsylvania, working on early digital computers. With the advent of World War II, he was invited to join Section T, OSRD, then getting underway at the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism, Carnegie Institution of Washington (which later became The Applied Physics Laboratory, of Johns Hopkins University), where his work included among other things operations analysis of the efficacy of variable time fuzes (proximity fuzes) for rotating projectiles. After the war and until 1955, he continued as head of a molecular spectroscopy group, largely concerned with combustion reactions, and served for several years as Associate Director of the Laboratory. During this period, he authored or co-authored a number of papers in Astrophysical Journal and elsewhere concerning spectra of astrophysically interesting molecules. In 1955 he became a Visiting Professor of Physics at the University of Maryland, and then, in 1956, moved to the Research Laboratory of General Motors, where he headed both the Theoretical Physics and Traffic Science Departments. He retired from General Motors in 1979 and joined the faculty of the University of Texas.

Although what follows is not related to astrophysics and cosmology, I would feel remiss were I not to mention two major contributions emerging from his career at General Motors. For one, he, along with several colleagues from Ohio State and Stanford, collaborated with former fellow graduate student Robert Hofstadter at Stanford, in the latter's studies of nuclear form factors, work which led to a Nobel Prize. Hofstadter's research involved using high energy electron scattering as a probe. Because Herman contributed to this work in a major way, he was invited to the Swedish ceremony when the Nobel Prize was given to Hofstadter. In a completely different field, Herman led the development of vehicular traffic science as an operations research discipline, involving such people as Ilya Prigogine (later a Nobel Laureate) and the late Elliot Montroll, and many others. Herman became quite well known for this work; he established a Transportation Science section of the Operations Research Society, as well as serving as founding editor of a journal on Transportation Science. He received many awards for his transportation science research, including the presidency of the Operations Society of America, and was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in recognition of his pioneering work. It was always startling to me to receive a preprint from Herman in which the solution to some problem in traffic science started with the Boltzmann equation. This was really applied physics in the best sense.

What was for me the most important element of Herman' s career began in 1947 and continued at various intensity levels until his death in February. Herman collaborated with me and with the late George Gamow in the development of the physics of the Big Bang model of the universe. The essence of this research and of the many consequent publications was the importance of physical phenomena in cosmological modeling. We showed that the cosmic abundances of the lighter chemical elements were surely established by thermonuclear reactions in the early stages of a relativistic, radiation-dominated universe. Moreover Herman and I proposed and calculated in 1948 that there should now exist a cosmic blackbody background radiation at a temperature of several kelvin, reflecting conditions in the expansion after matter and radiation decoupled. The existence of this now-famous 3K residual radiation was established in 1965 by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, work for which they received the Nobel Prize. Its existence, together with the agreement of theory and observation on element abundances, are strong pillars of the Big Bang model. I should mention that Herman, James Follin, Jr., and I published a paper establishing a methodology, still used, for dealing with physical conditions in the early universe prior to nucleosynthesis.

Herman left a truly remarkable record, that of a polymath, who at the time of his death had four papers in press, on traffic problems, and on the serviceability of pavements. During his career, he contributed to the theory of the English flute (one he made is on exhibit in a museum), to the problem of the measurement of pupillary diameters, had a one-man show of his sculptures in wood at the Washington headquarters of the National Academy of Sciences, and was a published cartoonist in Physics Today. His influence must be considered impressive, particularly if one looks at the list of many more than one hundred scientists with whom he coauthored papers in basic and applied science. He will be sorely missed, particularly as I must now finish alone a book on our journey through cosmology which we were writing when he died.

An extensive oral history interview with Alpher and Herman, conducted by Martin Harwit, is on file at the AlP Center for the History of Physics, and it is intended that our joint papers in cosmology be archived at Union College.

Photo (available in PDF version) courtesy Marsha Miller, University of Texas at Austin.

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