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Conyers Herring, scholar of solid-state physics, dies at 94

Conyers Herring

Conyers Herring

BY CHRISTINE BLACKMAN

Conyers Herring, a retired Stanford professor of applied physics whose career greatly influenced the field of materials science, and hence modern electronics, has died.

He was 94 when he passed away at his home in Palo Alto on July 23.

Herring was a leader in the field of solid-state physics, the study of the arrangement and interaction of atoms in solid materials. Solid-state physics forms the theoretical basis of materials science, with direct applications in technologies such as digital telephones, computers, video games, stereos, radios and other electronics.

Herring was also known for generously sharing his knowledge and time with others, and creating clever limericks on the spot.

In the field of physics, Herring’s greatest contribution was the development of the orthogonalized plane wave method, a practical way of measuring energy levels of electrons in metals, insulators and semiconductors.

“The integrated effect of his very profound work has been enormous. He has never let any issues that need explication pass by unnoted and was a prime mover in raising the standards of research in the field,” Frederick Seitz of Rockefeller University wrote in a brochure for Herring’s 80th birthday celebration.

A man of knowledge

Conyers Herring was born on Nov. 15, 1914 in Scotia, N.Y., to William and Mary Herring. He grew up in Parsons, Kan., and was so advanced that he started school in the fifth grade at the age of 5. Even at a young age, he would finish his homework quickly and spent his free time thinking, often about physics.

At age 14, he entered the University of Kansas, where he completed his bachelor’s degree in astronomy in 1933. He spent a year studying at the California Institute of Technology and then moved to Princeton University, where he received a Ph.D. in physics in 1937 under Eugene Wigner, a Nobel Prize winner.

While in graduate school he switched his focus from astrophysics to solid-state physics, a decision that profoundly affected the field. For the next two years he served as a National Research Council Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It was there that he began developing ways to calculate the energy levels of electrons, for which he won the prestigious Wolf Prize in Physics in 1984.

After teaching physics at the University of Missouri from 1940 to 1941, he served as a member of the Division of War Research at Columbia University during World War II.

In 1946, after a short professorship in applied mathematics at the University of Texas, he joined the technical staff of Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, N.J. Walter Kohn of the University of California, Santa Barbara, who worked with Herring at Bell Labs, described Herring as “the wise old man, to whom we all went for advice and information.”

The same year Herring joined Bell Labs, he met Louise Preusch at a retreat in Bear Mountain, N.Y. Preusch had just graduated from Barnard College in math and physics, making them a compatible couple. The two married and had a daughter and three sons.

Herring was persuaded to move to Stanford University in 1978 because of Bell Lab’s compulsory retirement age of 65. He became a professor of applied physics and at age 69 was still clocking in 35-hour weeks. According to his wife, Herring’s nearly 20 years at Stanford were a memorable part of his life in which the people in the applied physics department became both colleagues and social friends.

Herring retired at the age of 81 in 1995 but continued to serve as a consultant at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center.

A man of physics

At Bell Labs, Herring created the theoretical physics division, a field involving mathematical models and physics abstractions that explain natural phenomena.

Herring’s orthogonalized plane wave method greatly advanced calculations in band structure, which is the range of electron energy that determines the properties of a solid material. The method was a clever way of adding insight to a calculation that would have otherwise been impossible to make any real progress on, explained Theodore Geballe. Geballe is professor emeritus of applied physics and materials science and engineering at Stanford, and was a friend of Herring’s since they first worked together at Bell Labs in 1952.

Herring used the plane waves to cancel out a mass of calculations. “It made the method simpler and practical and it’s been the basis of almost all the calculations since then,” Geballe  said.

From 1976 to 1981, Herring served as chair of a National Academy of Sciences committee on nuclear power. The Academy asked him to review the Rasmussen Report, which outlined the risks of nuclear energy.

“He went through and re-derived every calculation by a different method. This was a massive job that he spent years on because he thought it was important for the country,” Geballe said.

Herring was also part of physics workshops with Russian scientists in the middle of the Cold War. Much of the Russian physicists’ work needed translation, so Herring simply taught himself the language.

A man of many honors

Among many awards, Herring received the Oliver E. Buckley solid-state Physics Prize from the American Physical Society in 1959 as well as the National Academy of Sciences 1980 James Murray Luck Award for Excellence in Scientific Reviewing. Herring was known for being thorough and complete. His reviews have stood the test of time, Geballe said.

Herring won the 1980 Von Hippel Award, the highest award given by the Materials Research Society. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was also a member of the American Physical Society, the American Society for Information Science, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

A man of patience and precision

Herring was not only known for his knowledge, but for his humble way of sharing it. “He treated everybody with respect and listened to their ideas, even if he knew they were wrong. With tact and patience, he was able to show them where they were wrong,” Geballe said.

Herring created his own indexing system before the invention of computers. By carrying thousands of 3x5 cards referencing scientific papers in a black suitcase, he served as a one-man Google to legions of researchers around the world, Geballe said.

In an interview, Geballe told the story of seeking advice from a scientist in England who had published a paper on a certain physics issue. The man wrote back, saying that Geballe should walk out his door, turn left, go up one flight of stairs and open the door, where he’d find Herring, the expert on the matter.

A man of faith

Herring was also known for his non-judgmental faith in Christ. He contributed to religious discussions and was one of 10 lecturers of a science-and-religion series at Stanford in 1985. He said that theology underlies science because “science is ultimately based on leaps of intuition and aesthetic perceptions.”

Herring had suffered a heart attack in the early 1980s and steadily grew weaker until his death. Of their 62 years of marriage, Louise Herring said their best memories together were the birth of their four children and the years developing friendships on the Stanford campus, in their church congregation, and in the Green Meadow neighborhood of Palo Alto.

In addition to his wife, Herring is also survived by his daughter, Lois, of Portland, Ore.; and three sons, Alan, of San Jose, Calif.; Brian, of London, England; and Gordon, of Tacoma, Wash. The First Congregational Church in Palo Alto will hold a memorial service on August 22 at 2 p.m.

Memorial donations may be sent to the University of Kansas Endowment, P.O. Box 928, Lawrence, Kansas 66044; or the Stanford University Department of Applied Physics, Via Pueblo Mall, Room 101, Stanford, CA, 94305.

Christine Blackman is a science-writing intern for the Stanford News Service.

Media Contact

Dan Stober, Stanford News Service: (650) 721-6965, dstober@stanford.edu