Gerhard Herzberg

Physical Chemistry

Won the 1971 Nobel Prize in chemistry for using spectroscopy to discover the internal geometry and energy states in simple molecules, and in particular the structure and characteristics of free radicals.

"You shouldn’t do science just to improve wealth — do science for the sake of human culture and knowledge. There must be some purpose in life that is higher than just surviving."

So You Want to Be a Physicist

When Herzberg finished high school at the age of 19, he dearly wanted to become an astronomer. At that time there was a vocational office in Hamburg where young people could go for career guidance. Herzberg went there and asked a counsellor, “How do I become an astronomer?” His request was sent all the way up to the director of the top observatory in Hamburg, but the answer was disappointing: he was told he would need to be independently wealthy to support himself as an astronomer. There was no way of making a living as an astronomer. Instead he was advised to go to university and study physics.

He still had no way to pay for a university education, but he wrote a letter to one of the biggest shipbuilding companies at the time, Hugo Stinnes Lines, and was lucky enough to get a scholarship. That was enough for him to live on while he attended university, launching him on a lifelong career as a physicist.

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