Karl Herzfeld

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Karl Herzfeld’s meteoric climb through the scientific community is the best way to explain it. Herzfeld’s interest for science was developed early in infancy, and it became his primary emphasis throughout his life, from attending many of Germany’s most prominent institutions to studying under one of the world’s most prolific physicists known to date. Karl managed to contribute countless results to the field of physics throughout the course of his sixty-year career, earning him widespread acclaim and appreciation. He served in the military, first as a soldier, then as a researcher, in addition to his scientific work. Karl spent much of his later years lecturing at many American universities, including Fordham University and the University of Michigan, after becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen. During this time, he published over 130 articles and fourteen books on a variety of issues that intrigued Herzfeld, including sound absorption mechanisms in gases, liquids, and solids, as well as the foundations of statistical mechanics and thermodynamics. He also had a strong interest in philosophy, as seen by his stint as a professor at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., where he remained until his death. Continue reading to learn more about his life and work.

Childhood and Adolescence

Karl Ferdinand Herzfeld was born in Vienna, Austria-Hungary, on February 24, 1892, to Dr. Charles August and Camilla Herzfeld. He went to a number of prestigious schools in Vienna as a child.

He attended ‘Schottes Gymnasium’ from 1902 until 1910. The school, run by the ‘Benedictine Order of the Roman Catholic Church,’ aided in the development of his scientific curiosity.
He began college studies at the ‘University of Vienna’ at the age of eighteen, studying physics and chemistry from 1910 to 1912.

He went on to the ‘University of Zurich’ and the ‘ETH Zurich’ to further his education. It was here that he met physicist Otto Stern, who would go on to assist Karl grasp thermodynamics better.

He studied under Albert Einstein at the ‘University of Gottingen’ for a year in 1913.
At the ‘University of Vienna,’ Herzfeld completed his doctoral studies.

After graduating, he enlisted in the Austro-Hungarian Army as a First Lieutenant of Artillery in the Austro-Hungarian Army during World War I in 1914.

In 1920, he returned home and accepted a position as a professor at the ‘University of Munich.’ He gained a great interest in theoretical physics while working in the school’s physicochemical laboratory.

‘Kinetische Theorie der Wärme’ (Kinetic Theory of Heat), his book on kinetic theory, was published in 1925. It would go on to become a graduate textbook at a number of German universities.

He moved to the United States in 1926, accepting a visiting position at John Hopkins University in Baltimore, where he stayed for a year before becoming a physics professor. With associate professor Francis O. Rice, Herzfeld conducted an extensive study.

The role of molecular vibrations in transmitting energy between ultrasonic waves and gas molecules was investigated in their 1928 collaborative paper, Dispersion and absorption of high-frequency sound waves.

He formed a friendship with scientist H.M. Smallwood in the early 1930s, which resulted in two contributions to 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.

During the years 1934 to 1941, Herzfeld worked alongside colleagues Maria Goeppert-Mayer and James Franck. His collaboration with Mayer resulted in the publishing of two articles: one on aggregation states in the Journal of Chemical Physics, and the other on fusion theory in the Physical Review.

‘An attempted theory of photosynthesis’ was published in the Journal of Chemical Physics, and ‘Contributions to a theory of photosynthesis’ was published in the Journal of Physical Chemistry.

He became a professor of physics and chairman of the Physics department at ‘The Catholic University of America’ in 1936. He worked as a consultant for the military during World War II after becoming a naturalized citizen.

Herzfeld changed his focus to quantum-mechanical calculations on the electrical structure of polyatomic molecules in the late 1940s.

Herzfeld collaborated on the book ‘Absorption and Dispersion of Ultrasonic Waves’ with physics professor Theodore A. Litovitz in 1959, which summarized Herzfeld’s ultrasonic ideas.

He was reinstated as Chairman of Physics at the ‘Catholic University of America’ in 1961.
He received the US Navy’s ‘Meritorious Service Citation’ in 1964 for his work as a mine warfare consultant during WWII.

In 1966, ‘The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America’ published one of Herzfeld’s final scholarly essays, summarizing fifty years of advancement in physical ultrasonics.
In 1969, he was appointed professor emeritus at the ‘Catholic University,’ and he remained in that position until his death.

Major Projects of Karl Herzfeld

During WWII, he was the head of the ‘Committee on Mine Advisory,’ which focused on scientific concerns about mine warfare on the US side. During his military service, he conducted research on the structure of matter and the application of statistical mechanics.

Achievements & Awards

This distinguished physicist was awarded the Mendel Medal by ‘Villanova University’ in 1931, and the Sechi Medal by ‘Georgetown University’ seven years later.

Personal History and Legacy

He met Regina Flannery, his future wife, at ‘Catholic University,’ and the two married on June 9, 1938.

This illustrious scientist died on June 3, 1978, at the age of 86.

Estimated net worth

The estimated net worth of Karl Herzfeld is unknown.