Robert Herman

Robert Herman

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Robert Herman was a United States scientist, best known for his work with Ralph Alpher in 1948-50, on estimating the temperature of cosmic microwave background radiation
Cosmic microwave background radiation
In cosmology, cosmic microwave background radiation is thermal radiation filling the observable universe almost uniformly....

 from the Big Bang
Big Bang
The Big Bang theory is the prevailing cosmological model that explains the early development of the Universe. According to the Big Bang theory, the Universe was once in an extremely hot and dense state which expanded rapidly. This rapid expansion caused the young Universe to cool and resulted in...


Born in the Bronx, New York City, Herman graduated cum laude with special honors in physics from the City College of New York
City College of New York
The City College of the City University of New York is a senior college of the City University of New York , in New York City. It is also the oldest of the City University's twenty-three institutions of higher learning...

 in 1935, and in 1940 was awarded master's and doctoral degrees in physics from Princeton University
Princeton University
Princeton University is a private research university located in Princeton, New Jersey, United States. The school is one of the eight universities of the Ivy League, and is one of the nine Colonial Colleges founded before the American Revolution....

 in the area of molecular spectroscopy. As a graduate student, Herman already exhibited eclectic tendencies in diverse fields by also working in solid state physics, as well as straddling theory and experiment. He spent the academic year 1940-41 working on the Bush differential analyzer at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering
Moore School of Electrical Engineering
The Moore School of Electrical Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania came into existence as a result of an endowment from Alfred Fitler Moore on June 4, 1923. It was granted to Penn's School of Electrical Engineering, located in the Towne Building...

, University of Pennsylvania
University of Pennsylvania
The University of Pennsylvania is a private, Ivy League university located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States. Penn is the fourth-oldest institution of higher education in the United States,Penn is the fourth-oldest using the founding dates claimed by each institution...

, and another year teaching physics at the City College of New York.

In 1942, he left teaching to work at the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism, the Carnegie Institution of Washington, D.C., and the Applied Physics Laboratory of Johns Hopkins University
Johns Hopkins University
The Johns Hopkins University, commonly referred to as Johns Hopkins, JHU, or simply Hopkins, is a private research university based in Baltimore, Maryland, United States...

, all research centers for the war effort. He worked on such problems as the proximity fuse for naval antiaircraft gunfire, which was used effectively during the war. It was then that Herman became intrigued with defining and solving complex problems. He shifted his attention from theory and laboratory work and became deeply involved with field testing of the proximity device and the operational problems associated with its use in the fleet. In 1945, he received the Naval Ordnance Development Award.

After World War II
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

, Herman spent another decade at the Applied Physics Lab pursuing research in spectroscopy and condensed-matter physics. It was during this period that he and Ralph Alpher did their now famous work on cosmology
Cosmology is the discipline that deals with the nature of the Universe as a whole. Cosmologists seek to understand the origin, evolution, structure, and ultimate fate of the Universe at large, as well as the natural laws that keep it in order...

. In 1948, as a consequence of their studies of nucleosynthesis
Nucleosynthesis is the process of creating new atomic nuclei from pre-existing nucleons . It is thought that the primordial nucleons themselves were formed from the quark–gluon plasma from the Big Bang as it cooled below two trillion degrees...

 in the early expanding Big Bang
Big Bang
The Big Bang theory is the prevailing cosmological model that explains the early development of the Universe. According to the Big Bang theory, the Universe was once in an extremely hot and dense state which expanded rapidly. This rapid expansion caused the young Universe to cool and resulted in...

 universe model, they made the first theoretical prediction of the existence of a residual, homogeneous, isotopic, blackbody radiation (cosmic microwave background radiation
Cosmic microwave background radiation
In cosmology, cosmic microwave background radiation is thermal radiation filling the observable universe almost uniformly....

) that pervades the universe as a vestige of the initial Big Bang explosion.

This work received some notice at the time, but soon fell into obscurity. In 1964, the radiation was accidentally detected by two scientists, Arno Penzias and Robert Woodrow Wilson
Robert Woodrow Wilson
For the American President, see Woodrow Wilson.Robert Woodrow Wilson is an American astronomer, 1978 Nobel laureate in physics, who with Arno Allan Penzias discovered in 1964 the cosmic microwave background radiation...

 at the Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey, while trying to correct a malfunction in a radio dish. After eliminating every conceivable source of interference, they concluded that the radiation source was not of earthly origin. After learning about this work, a group of physicists from Princeton University interpreted it as background radiation of cosmic origin, but without reference to the two 1948 papers, one by Alpher, Bethe and Gamow
George Gamow
George Gamow , born Georgiy Antonovich Gamov , was a Russian-born theoretical physicist and cosmologist. He discovered alpha decay via quantum tunneling and worked on radioactive decay of the atomic nucleus, star formation, stellar nucleosynthesis, Big Bang nucleosynthesis, cosmic microwave...

 (therefore sometimes called the α-β-γ paper) and the other by Alpher and Herman. The Big Bang model for the origin of the universe became widely accepted, and in 1978 a Nobel Prize
Nobel Prize
The Nobel Prizes are annual international awards bestowed by Scandinavian committees in recognition of cultural and scientific advances. The will of the Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, established the prizes in 1895...

 was awarded to Bell scientists Penzias and Wilson for their detection of the cosmic background radiation. When recalling the culmination of this series of events, Herman remarked graciously, "You don't give recognition to the person; you give it to the work."

Nevertheless, the team of Herman and Alpher were eventually recognized for their pioneering contribution. In 1993, the National Academy of Sciences
United States National Academy of Sciences
The National Academy of Sciences is a corporation in the United States whose members serve pro bono as "advisers to the nation on science, engineering, and medicine." As a national academy, new members of the organization are elected annually by current members, based on their distinguished and...

 announced that they would share the Henry Draper Medal
Henry Draper Medal
The Henry Draper Medal is awarded by the United States National Academy of Sciences "for investigations in astronomical physics". Named after Henry Draper, the medal is awarded with a gift of USD $15,000...

, the oldest award of the Academy, for their contributions to astronomical physics. They were recognized "for their insight and skill in developing a physical model of the evolution of the universe and in predicting the existence of a microwave background radiation years before this radiation was serendipitously discovered; through this work they were participants in one of the major intellectual achievements of the 20th century." They also received the Magellanic Premium
Magellanic Premium
The Magellanic Premium, also known as the Magellanic Gold Medal and Magellanic Prize is awarded for major contributions in the field of navigation , astronomy, or natural philosophy....

 of the American Philosophical Society
American Philosophical Society
The American Philosophical Society, founded in 1743, and located in Philadelphia, Pa., is an eminent scholarly organization of international reputation, that promotes useful knowledge in the sciences and humanities through excellence in scholarly research, professional meetings, publications,...

, the John Wetherhill Gold Medal of the Franklin Institute
Franklin Institute
The Franklin Institute is a museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and one of the oldest centers of science education and development in the United States, dating to 1824. The Institute also houses the Benjamin Franklin National Memorial.-History:On February 5, 1824, Samuel Vaughn Merrick and...

, and the Georges Vanderlinden Prix of the Belgian Royal Academy.

In 1956, Herman joined the General Motors Research Laboratory, as head of the basic science group, later renamed the theoretical physics department. He introduced science into the affairs of his employer by inventing a new science, traffic science. Drawing upon his background in physics, he first directed his attention to the description of the microscopic behavior of traffic: the detailed manner in which individual drivers avoid coinciding with each other in space and time, at least most of the time.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Herman joined with Elliott Waters Montroll
Elliott Waters Montroll
Elliott Waters Montroll was an American scientist and mathematician.-Education:...

 and others in developing the car-following theory of traffic flow
Traffic flow
Traffic flow, in mathematics and civil engineering, is the study of interactions between vehicles, drivers, and infrastructure , with the aim of understanding and developing an optimal road network with efficient movement of traffic and minimal traffic congestion problems.-History:Attempts to...

, a theory that has stood the test of time and is still the state of the art today. Shortly thereafter, Herman and Ilya Prigogine
Ilya Prigogine
Ilya, Viscount Prigogine was a Russian-born naturalized Belgian physical chemist and Nobel Laureate noted for his work on dissipative structures, complex systems, and irreversibility.-Biography :...

, a future Nobel Laureate, developed a theory of multilane traffic flow. For more than thirty-five years, Herman moved into diverse fields of traffic science, always leaving his characteristic mark of excellence. In recent years, he worked with his students and colleagues to develop a "two-fluid model of town traffic," a description of vehicular traffic on urban road networks, an extension of the theory that he formulated with Prigogine some years before. This theory, along with his earlier work, has been significant in the development of the now-emerging Intelligent Transportation Systems concept.

In 1979, Herman joined the faculty of the University of Texas at Austin
University of Texas at Austin
The University of Texas at Austin is a state research university located in Austin, Texas, USA, and is the flagship institution of the The University of Texas System. Founded in 1883, its campus is located approximately from the Texas State Capitol in Austin...

, with a joint appointment as professor of physics, in the Center for Studies in Statistical Mechanics, and the L.P. Gilvin Professor in Civil Engineering. He later became the L.P. Gilvin Centennial Professor Emeritus in Civil Engineering. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
American Academy of Arts and Sciences
The American Academy of Arts and Sciences is an independent policy research center that conducts multidisciplinary studies of complex and emerging problems. The Academy’s elected members are leaders in the academic disciplines, the arts, business, and public affairs.James Bowdoin, John Adams, and...

 in 1979.

In his spare time, Herman was known to ponder the physics of musical instruments, such as the mechanics of a cello bow and the acoustics of the English flute. He played and collected antique cellos.

In the mid 1980s, he began creating small sculptures from exotic woods and metals. For the next decade, he pursued this creative and meaningful quest to find the least-mediated, least-quantifiable relation between matter and the imagination. An exhibition of several of his carvings was presented at the National Academy of Engineering
National Academy of Engineering
The National Academy of Engineering is a government-created non-profit institution in the United States, that was founded in 1964 under the same congressional act that led to the founding of the National Academy of Sciences...

 in Washington, D.C.
Washington, D.C.
Washington, D.C., formally the District of Columbia and commonly referred to as Washington, "the District", or simply D.C., is the capital of the United States. On July 16, 1790, the United States Congress approved the creation of a permanent national capital as permitted by the U.S. Constitution....

, in 1994, at the College of Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin in 1995, and at the Leu Art Gallery of Belmont University
Belmont University
Belmont University is a private, coeducational, liberal arts university located in Nashville, Tennessee, United States. It is the largest Christian university in Tennessee and the second largest private university in the state, behind nearby Vanderbilt University.-Belmont Mansion:Belmont Mansion...

 in Nashville, Tennessee
Nashville, Tennessee
Nashville is the capital of the U.S. state of Tennessee and the county seat of Davidson County. It is located on the Cumberland River in Davidson County, in the north-central part of the state. The city is a center for the health care, publishing, banking and transportation industries, and is home...

, in 1996.

During the last several years of his life, Herman grew increasingly concerned about the state of education in the United States, the changing yet increasingly critical role of the university in society, the increasing encroachment of political considerations on the education and research enterprise, the constant attacks on academic freedom, and the continuing erosion of the base upon which the nation's great achievements in science and technology have been attained. In his last two years, he busily compiled and analyzed data on all sorts of performance indicators of quality and productivity of university departments. This was part of a broader effort to model universities as complex systems.

Herman died in Austin, Texas
Austin, Texas
Austin is the capital city of the U.S. state of :Texas and the seat of Travis County. Located in Central Texas on the eastern edge of the American Southwest, it is the fourth-largest city in Texas and the 14th most populous city in the United States. It was the third-fastest-growing large city in...

, on February 13, 1997.

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