Karl Herzfeld’s rise through the scientific community can best be described as ‘meteoric.’ From a child attending several of Germany’s most prestigious schools to studying under one of the world’s most prolific physicist known to date, Herzfeld’s passion for science was cultivated early on in life, thus becoming his prime focus through the course of it. Over the length of sixty years of his career, Karl managed to contribute numerous findings to the field of physics, receiving overwhelming praise and admiration for his respect. In addition to his work in the sciences, he also served in the military—first as a soldier, then as a researcher. After becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen, Karl spent much of his later years lecturing at several American universities, including Fordham University and the University of Michigan. During this time, he managed to publish over 130 articles, as well as fourteen books, covering a number of topics which interested Herzfeld, including the mechanisms of sound absorption in gases, liquids, and solids and the foundations of statistical mechanics and thermodynamics. Additionally, he had great interest in philosophy, evident by his time spent at the Catholic University of America in Washington D.C., where he would serve as a professor until his death. To know more about his life and works read on
Childhood and Early Life
Karl Ferdinand Herzfeld was born on February 24, 1892 in Vienna, Austria-Hungary to Dr. Charles August and Camilla Herzfeld. As a child, he attended several prominent schools around Vienna.
From 1902-1910, he was a student at ‘Schottes Gymnasium’. The school, managed by the ‘Benedictine Order of the Roman Catholic Church’, helped develop his interest in science.
At eighteen, he began collegiate studies at the ‘University of Vienna’, studying physics and chemistry from 1910-1912.
He continued his studies at the ‘University of Zurich’, as well as ‘ETH Zurich’. It is here where he met physicist Otto Stern, who would help Karl develop a greater understanding of thermodynamics.
In 1913, he spent a year at the ‘University of Gottingen’, studying under Albert Einstein.Herzfeld completed his doctorate studies at the ‘University of Vienna’.
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Upon graduation, he enlisted in the Austro-Hungarian Army during World War I in 1914, acquiring the position of First Lieutenant of Artillery.
After returning home in 1920, he accepted a job as a faculty member for the ‘University of Munich’. He worked in the school’s physicochemical laboratory, developing a strong interest in theoretical physics.
In 1925, his book on kinetic theory, ‘Kinetische Theorie der Wärme’ (Kinetic Theory of Heat) was published. It would become a graduate-level textbook used in numerous German universities.
In 1926, he relocated to the United States, accepting a visiting professorship at John Hopkins University in Baltimore, becoming a physics professor after one year. Herzfeld did substantial research with associate professor Francis O. Rice.
Their 1928 collaborative paper, Dispersion and absorption of high-frequency sound waves, examined the purpose of molecular vibrations in transferring energy between ultrasonic waves and gas molecules.
During the early 1930s, he developed a relationship with chemist H.M. Smallwood, resulting in two contributions for Hugh S. Taylor’s ‘A Treatise on Physical Chemistry: The kinetic theory of gases and liquids’ and ‘Imperfect gases and the liquid state’ in 1931.
Herzfeld collaborated with fellow colleagues Maria Goeppert-Mayer and James Franck during 1934-41. His work with Mayer would result in the publication of two articles: on the states of aggregation in the ‘Journal of Chemical Physics’ and on the theory of fusion in ‘Physical Review’.
His collaboration alongside Franck produced two more: ‘An attempted theory of photosynthesis’ in the ‘Journal of Chemical Physics’ and ‘Contributions to a theory of photosynthesis’ for the ‘Journal of Physical Chemistry’.
In 1936, he took a job at ‘The Catholic University of America’ as a professor of physics and chairman of the Physics department. After becoming naturalized citizen, he worked for the military during World War II as a consultant.
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During the latter part of the 1940s, Herzfeld shifted his focus toward quantum-mechanical calculations on the electronic structure of polyatomic molecules.
In 1959, Herzfeld collaborated with physics professor, Theodore A. Litovitz on the book, ‘Absorption and Dispersion of Ultrasonic Waves’, which abridged Herzfeld’s theories on ultrasonics.
In 1961, he regained his position as Chairman of Physics at the ‘Catholic University of America’.
In 1964, he was awarded the US Navy’s ‘Meritorious Service Citation’ for his services during World War II as a consultant on mine warfare.
In 1966, what would be one of Herzfeld’s last scientific articles was published in ‘The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America’, summarizing fifty years of progression in physical ultrasonics.
He was conferred the title of professor emeritus at the ‘Catholic University’ in 1969, and continued to serve in this capacity until his death.
He served as head of the ‘Committee on Mine Advisory’, focusing on the scientific concerns of mine warfare during WWII on the side of the U.S. Throughout his tenure with the military he researched on structure of matter and application of statistical mechanics.
Awards & Achievements
This eminent physicist received the Mendel Medal in 1931 from ‘Villanova University’ and seven years later he was presented with the ‘Sechi Medal’ by ‘Georgetown University’.
Personal Life & Legacy
He met his future wife, Regina Flannery at ‘Catholic University’ and they married on June 9, 1938.
On June 3, 1978, at the age of 86, this renowned scientist passed away