April 1997 Volume 24 Number 2
Famed physicist, OR pioneer, "father of
transportation science" and sculptor remembered as a "scientist's
Robert Herman, a leading light in the wide world of science, died
on Feb. 13, 1997, after a long, brave fight against cancer. His last
e-mail messages to some of his friends revolved on matters of science
and his concern for a doctoral student. This was Robert Herman at his
best until the very end, a scientist's scientist and a loving mentor.
The loss of Herman is hard to bear for those who have known him,
but it is more appropriate to celebrate his life than lament his
loss, and I know that this is how Herman would like it. The world of
operations research is richer for having had Robert Herman in its
fold over the past 40 years or so.
Herman was a leading light within ORSA, joining the society
shortly after its inception, serving on its Council, and then as its
president. As an ORSA officer and practitioner, he challenged the
society to continue redefining its mission as one of addressing new,
important societal problems and not just refining solutions to old
ones. One of the unfinished projects that his untimely death forced
him to leave behind was an attempt to model a university as a system
and try to develop a methodology for improving such a system. "Many
leaders of higher education," he wrote, "believe that the current
period calls for more than the usual, ongoing institutional
restructuring of the American academic enterprise."
Exploring new frontiers in diverse fields of science was Herman's
hallmark throughout his scientific life. He excelled in so many
diverse fields of science that one is hard pressed to do justice to
all his achievements. In ORSA, he will always be remembered as the
undisputed father of transportation science, having done some of the
most important seminal work on modeling of traffic systems, having
led the founding of the Transportation Science Section, and having
served as the founding editor of the Transportation Science
journal. But the world of science has also been served by Herman
exploring the far reaches of the universe, as well as investigating
the structure of elemental units of matter. In his spare time, he
pondered the physics of musical instruments, such as the mechanics of
a cello bow and the acoustics of the English flute. Many of the
people who met him described him as "a Renaissance Man." This may be
an appropriate label, except that it raises the bar for anyone else
aspiring for the same appellation.
Herman obtained his doctoral degree in physics at Princeton, in
1940, in the area of molecular spectroscopy. As a graduate student he
had already exhibited eclectic tendencies in diverse fields by also
working in solid state physics, as well as straddling theory and
experiment. After an academic year working on the Bush Differential
Analyzer at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering, University of
Pennsylvania, and another year teaching physics at his alma mater,
the College of the City of New York, he joined the war effort,
working on such problems as the proximity fuse for naval antiaircraft
gunfire which was effectively used in World War II. It was then that
Herman became intrigued with complex problems. He drifted away from
laboratory work and became deeply involved with service testing of
the proximity device and the operational problems associated with its
use in the fleet.
With the end of World War II, he spent a decade at the Applied
Physics Laboratory of the Johns Hopkins University, the center of the
war effort, pursuing research in spectroscopy and condensed matter
physics. It was during this period that he and Ralph Alpher, a
student of George Gamow, did their now famous work on cosmology. As a
consequence of their studies in nucleosynthesis in the early
expanding big bang universe, they made the first theoretical
prediction, in 1948, of the existence of a residual homogeneous
isotopic black body radiation (microwave radiation) that pervades the
universe, as a vestige of the initial big bang explosion.
In 1964, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson of Bell Laboratories
accidentally detected such radiation while trying to correct a
malfunction in a radio dish. After eliminating every conceivable
source of interference, Penzias and Wilson concluded that the
radiation source was not of earthly origin. Hearing of this work, a
group of physicists from Princeton University interpreted it as a
background radiation of cosmic origin, but without reference to the
1948 paper of Herman and Alpher. In 1978, Penzias and Wilson received
the Nobel Prize for their detection of the cosmic background
In the years that followed, Herman and Alpher received wide
recognition for their pioneering contribution. They received the
Magellanic Premium of the American Philosophical Society, in 1975,
and the Draper Medal of the National Academy of Sciences in 1993, 45
years after their remarkable paper. They also received the John
Wetherhill Gold Medal of the Franklin Institute, and the Georges
Vanderlinden Prix of the Belgian Royal Academy.
In 1956, Herman joined the General Motors Research Laboratory with a
mission to build a basic science activity. He did so as head of a
Basic Science Group, later renamed Theoretical Physics Department. At
the same time, he introduced science in the affairs of his employer
by inventing a new science, traffic theory. Starting in the late
1950s, he collaborated with Elliott Montroll and others to develop a
car-following theory of traffic flow which has stood the test of time
and is still the state of the art today. For this seminal
contribution, Herman and his collaborators received the Lanchester
Prize of ORSA and The Johns Hopkins University, in 1959.
Indisputably, this work launched the new field of traffic science,
with Herman and his colleagues founding the Transportation Science
Section of ORSA.
Herman continued making seminal contributions in traffic science.
With Nobel laureate Ilya Prigogine, he developed a kinetic theory of
multilane traffic flow based on a Boltzmann-like model of interaction
of cars with each other. In recent years, he and others developed a
"two-fluid model of town traffic" based on the Prigogine-Herman
model. The two-fluid model has been verified with data collected in
various metropolitan areas and promises to contribute to the
development of intelligent transportation systems, which are
internationally pursued today.
While founding new sciences, Herman did not neglect physics. In
the late 1950s, he collaborated with Robert Hofstadter of Stanford
University in developing a theoretical interpretation of experiments
of scattering of high energy electrons on nucleons (neutrons and
protons) conducted in the linear accelerator installation of
Stanford. The theoretical models suggested a charge structure for the
atomic nucleus which is widely accepted today. In 1961, Robert
Hofstadter received the Nobel Prize for this contribution.
In 1979, Herman joined the faculty of the University of Texas at
Austin as a professor of Civil Engineering. Once more, he
distinguished himself as a teacher and mentor of young people,
contributing a steady stream of contributions to traffic science even
after he was named the L. P. Gilvin Centennial Professor Emeritus of
Characteristically, his activities were not confined to science.
Since the mid-1980s, he was engaged in yet another research which,
while apparently very different and unknown to most, was no less
accomplished, creative or meaningful. It concerned the least
mediated, least quantifiable relation between matter and the
imagination. And it took the form of small-scale,
quasi-representational sculptures of exotic hardwoods. An exhibition
of several of Herman's carvings was presented at the National Academy
of Engineering in Washington, D.C., in 1994, and at the Leu Art
Gallery of the Bellmont University in Nashville, Tenn., in 1996.
Three basic loves
What made Herman's presence among us so precious? I think it was a
combination of unusual attributes, and among them I would cite three
basic loves: the love of human spirit; the love of science and the
search for truth; and the love of life. He urged his colleagues, by
word and by example, to make the best of themselves. He let them know
that it was all right to have fun while doing science; in fact they
would do better science that way. And he did not just do science, but
he lived science, searching for the cause of everyday experiences.
People who met him even briefly left with an indelible impression of
an unwavering human spirit at its best, searching for truth. Herman
himself used to quote the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus who
said, "Nature seeks to hide."
In recent years, Herman worried about the well being of our
culture. He felt that "there was an ever-increasing tendency to
support pragmatic applied research at the expense of fundamental
research," and he urged everyone to "never forget where our basic
knowledge comes from." He made these points while accepting the 1993
Roy W. Crum Distinguished Service Award of the Transportation
Research Board, one of the many awards he received over the years.
And he quoted Leonardo da Vinci as a supporter of the same principle
of respect for basic knowledge. He recalled that da Vinci said,
"Those who fall in love with practice without science are like a
sailor who enters a ship without a helm or a compass and does not
know whither he is going." In the same acceptance remarks, Herman
demonstrated his legendary sense of humor, often with self-effacing
overtones, by remarking: " ... may I express my heartfelt gratitude
on receiving this important distinction. I should like to add that I
have learned something very important from this experience &endash;
that is, if you live long enough, even something good can happen."
In addition to the awards already mentioned above, Herman received
many others, including the ORSA/TIMS John von Neumann Theory Prize
for "fundamental contributions to the theory of vehicular traffic";
the William A. Patterson Distinguished Lectureship in Transportation
from Northwestern University (1993); the Philip McCord Morse
Lectureship of ORSA (1991); the ORSA Transportation Science Section's
first Lifetime Achievement Award (1990) which was named after him;
the New York Academy of Sciences Award in Physical and Mathematical
Sciences (1981); and ORSA's George E. Kimball Medal (1976).
He was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1978 for
his contributions to the science of vehicular traffic, and in 1979 he
was elected a fellow in the mathematical and physical sciences of the
American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Perhaps what best describes Herman is yet another quotation from
the ancient Greek philosophers that he so admired, this one from
Aristotle, who said:
"There is a kind of life which rises above the limits of human
nature; men will live it not by nature of their humanity, but by
virtue of something in them that is divine. We should not listen to
those who exhort a man to live only according to rational reasoning,
but we should live according to the highest thing that is in us, for
small though it is, it is far more valuable than the rest."
- Denos C. Gazis
March 3, 1997
Editor's note: Denos Gazis met Robert Herman in 1957 when
he joined Herman's Basic Science Group at GM. Gazis participated in
the pioneering work on car-following traffic theory, and was
co-recipient of the Lanchester Prize for this work. His friendship
and collaboration with Herman continued over the years, even after
Gazis left GM to join IBM. Their last joint paper was published last
year. Gazis was also the third recipient of the Herman Lifetime
Achievement Award of the Transportation Science Section of ORSA.
Kindred spirits, Herman and Gazis frequently charmed audiences by
acting as each other's straight man. Gazis now feels compelled to
finish some unfinished joint work, such as the study of the physics
of the cello bow.
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