Herschbach to muse on ‘silly, serious science’ for Assembly Series

Nobel Laureate says science and humor are a winning combination

Some would say that receiving the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1986 represented the pinnacle of success for eminent Harvard University scientist Dudley Herschbach, PhD.

Others think that the Nobel can’t measure up to what has become Herschbach’s most memorable accomplishment: A 2003 appearance on The Simpsons. (For Simpsons fans, it was the Halloween special “Treehouse of Horror XIV.”)

The scientist with a sense of humor had a cameo on one of the most popular and longstanding satirical TV shows, playing himself awarding the mad scientist character, Professor Frink, his own Nobel Prize.

Herschbach thinks that science and humor have been a winning combination for many successful Americans, including Ben Franklin.

At 4 p.m. Wednesday, April 4, he will explain his reasoning behind that concept for the annual Ferguson Science Lecture. His talk, “Silly Serious Science: Homage to IgNobel and Ben Franklin” will be held in Graham Chapel on Washington University in St. Louis’ Danforth Campus. The program is free and open to the public.

“I think it’s important that people understand that scientists have fun,” Herschbach said in a 2007 interview with ABC News. “It seems a good thing to me. Science is a very human enterprise. If you help more people appreciate that, so much the better.”

The IgNobel Awards is an annual awards ceremony that appears, on the surface, to mock scientific inquiry. The concept was invented by Marc Abrahams, editor of Annals of Improbable Research (AIR) and the annual event is held at Harvard and aired live on NPR.

NPR “Science Friday” host Ira Flatow explains that the awards “first make you laugh, then make you think.”

Herschbach agrees, and views the “Igs” as complementary to the prizes Alfred Nobel launched in 1901.

Herschbach — the first in his family to attend college — got a scholarship to Stanford University where he earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and a master’s in chemistry. He earned a doctorate in chemical physics from Harvard University.

In 1959, he joined the faculty of the University of California, Berkeley, but returned to Harvard in 1963 as a professor of chemistry. During his tenure at Harvard, he served as chairman of the chemical physics program and the department of chemistry. As emeritus professor, Herschbach continues to teach, including freshman courses in general chemistry and in physical chemistry.

Nearly two decades after receiving the Nobel Prize — which he shared with Yuan T. Lee, PhD, and John C. Polanyi, PhD — for research on understanding the dynamics of chemical elementary processes, Herschbach continues to advance the field of chemical physics.

To date, he has published more than 400 papers on related research topics ranging from collision stereo dynamics and molecular slowing to catalytic supersonic expansions and strongly correlated many-particle interactions.

A strong advocate for science education, Herschbach leads many outreach programs to foster interest in the sciences and advance K-12 science literacy.

He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; the National Academy of Sciences; the American Philosophical Society; and the Royal Chemical Society of Great Britain.

Besides the Nobel prize, other awards include the Pure Chemistry Prize of the American Chemical Society (ACS); the Linus Pauling Medal; and the National Medal of Science.

In addition, Chemical Engineering News includes Herschbach in its list of 75 leading contributors to the chemical enterprise in the past 75 years.

For more information on this or the Assembly Series, visit assemblyseries.wustl.edu or call (314) 935-4260.