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Guide to the W. Conyers Herring Papers
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Collection Details
Table of contents What's This?
  • Overview
  • Administrative Information
  • Biographical/Historical Sketch
  • Description of the Collection
  • Access Terms

  • Overview

    Call Number: SC0912
    Creator: Herring, W. Conyers
    Title: W. Conyers Herring papers
    Dates: 1970-2003
    Bulk Dates: 2003
    Physical Description: 1.75 Linear feet
    Summary: Reports and lectures notes.
    Language(s): The materials are in English.
    Repository: Department of Special Collections and University Archives
    Green Library
    557 Escondido Mall
    Stanford, CA 94305-6064
    Email: specialcollections@stanford.edu
    Phone: (650) 725-1022
    URL: http://library.stanford.edu/spc/university-archives

    Administrative Information

    Information about Access

    This collection is open for research.

    Ownership & Copyright

    All requests to reproduce, publish, quote from, or otherwise use collection materials must be submitted in writing to the Head of Special Collections and University Archives, Stanford University Libraries, Stanford, California 94304-6064. Consent is given on behalf of Special Collections as the owner of the physical items and is not intended to include or imply permission from the copyright owner. Such permission must be obtained from the copyright owner, heir(s) or assigns. See: http://library.stanford.edu/depts/spc/pubserv/permissions.html.
    Restrictions also apply to digital representations of the original materials. Use of digital files is restricted to research and educational purposes.

    Cite As

    W. Conyers Herring Reports (SC0912). Department of Special Collections and University Archives, Stanford University Libraries, Stanford, Calif.

    Biographical/Historical Sketch

    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.

    Access Terms

    Herring, W. Conyers
    Cost effectiveness.
    Physics--Study and teaching.