Description of the Collection
Call Number: SC0912
Herring, W. Conyers
Title: W. Conyers Herring papers
Bulk Dates: 2003
1.75 Linear feet
Summary: Reports and lectures notes.
Language(s): The materials are in English.
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W. Conyers Herring Reports (SC0912). Department of Special Collections and University Archives, Stanford University Libraries,
Professor emeritus of applied physics at Stanford University. 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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
Herring was not only known for his knowledge, but for his humble way of sharing it. 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, Ted 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.
Herring was survived by his wife; daughter, Lois, of Portland, Ore.; and three sons, Alan, of San Jose, Calif.; Brian, of
London, England; and Gordon, of Tacoma, Wash.
Description of the Collection
The materials consist of two reports where Herring was the chairman: "Report of the Panel on Economics of the Science Information
Council," January 1973, and "Report of the Task Group on the Economics of Primary Publication" (published by the National
Academy of Sciences, 1970); and notes prepared for a series of lectures on the evolution of solid-state physics.
Herring, W. Conyers
Physics--Study and teaching.