April 1997 € Volume 24 € Number 2

In Memoriam
Robert Herman

Famed physicist, OR pioneer, "father of transportation science" and sculptor remembered as a "scientist's scientist"

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."

New frontiers
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 radiation.

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.

Traffic science
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 the university.

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.

E-mail to the Editorial Department of OR/MS Today: orms@lionhrtpub.com

OR/MS Today copyright 1997, 1998 by the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences. All rights reserved.

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