Discovering Widener

Dudley Herschbach

Before arriving at Harvard in 1955 as a graduate student, I had heard of the mighty reputation of Widener Library but thought it irrelevant for my field of chemical physics. My very first class changed that view. It was an unanticipated course offered by a famous theoretician visiting that year from Cornell, Professor Peter Debye. Titled "Introduction to Chemical Physics," the course was in fact an exhilarating tour of Debye's life work. In his first lecture, Debye described his classic treatment, published in 1912, of the thermal properites of crystals at low temperatures. This involved an elegant mathematical analysis that enabled one of the earliest and most compelling quantitative tests of the concept of energy quanta. Soon after the lecture, when trying to describe Debye's theory to some fellow students who had not been at the class, I discovered that my enthusiasm far exceeded my comprehension. Consulting a couple of textbooks left me still more confused. Then it occurred to me that perhaps I could find Debye's original paper in Widener.

Cover of the volume of Annalen der Physik in which Debye's paper appeared.

In the forty years since the author read the essay the paper has become embrittled. This is just one instance of the enormous preservation challenge facing Widener Library.

My memory of that first visit is vivid, although it is now more than 40 years ago. On approaching Widener, I was struck by the notion that it resembled a huge Mayan temple, perched atop a grand pedestal of stairs. The spiritual impact intensified as I descended into the stacks, which seemed sacred, otherworldly precincts. Among the great walls of journals, I easily found the long row holding the Annalen der Physik, plucked out volume 39, blew away the dust, turned to page 789 and began reading what Debye had written when he was about my age. Luckily, his German was uncommonly lucid, and I was greatly excited and reassured that I could readily understand his article. Thereafter, I have often returned to search out original papers by Planck, Einstein, Bohr, Pauling, and other legendary scientists and scholars. Amid the stacks of Widener, their great papers remain ever youthful.

Michael McCormick Eckehard Simon John R. Stilgoe Richard F. Thomas Jan M. Ziolkowski T. N. Bisson
Leo Damrosch James Engell Owen Gingerich Richard Marius Dudley Herschbach Francisco Márquez