Meet Jan Herbst, BFS (GH) Class '68!

Memories of Penn and the General Honors Program I was privileged to join are profoundly significant for me.  The broad education I received, thanks to talented and dedicated professors [among them Amado, Caspari, Harris, Highland, Langenberg, Stephens, Walmsley (physics); Palmer (Roman history); Evans (religious thought); Blackburn (English/creative writing); Samoff (political science)], diversity of available studies (I took GH courses ranging from mathematics and natural science to political science, literature, modern India and Pakistan, and ethical reasoning), and continuous emphasis on critical thought, provided a marvelous steppingstone to further life adventures.

As the GH booklet I still have states, “the Program is designed to challenge the abilities of exceptional students who have shown a capacity for demanding study and continuing interest in the humanities, the social sciences and the sciences.”  Since I commuted to Penn three years, living on campus for only junior year (but a memorable one!), I did not interact with classmates as much as I would have liked.  Despite that limitation, I did make a number of exceptional friends, especially those in GH, who impressed me with penetrating intellects combined with genuine affability.

After Penn I entered graduate school in physics at Cornell, earning a Ph.D. in 1974.  There I had the extraordinary good fortune of meeting five current or future physics Nobel Prize winners: I took courses from Hans Bethe and Ken Wilson, and Dave Lee (co-recipient with Bob Richardson and Doug Osheroff) was on my thesis committee.  My advisor, John Wilkins, was a masterful mentor who also took me and others along for his sabbatical in Denmark and Sweden in 1972-3, a fantastic experience which included attending Nobel Symposium 24 (as a menial factotum; nine Nobelists participated).

I landed my only real job at General Motors R&D following post-docs at the National Bureau of Standards and Brookhaven National Laboratory and was assigned to a group working on samarium-cobalt magnets for electric motors.  Disruption of the cobalt supply by the 1978 revolution in Zaire, at the time the world’s largest cobalt producer, scuttled that effort.  With a few ideas and a generous pinch of serendipity, we discovered the novel ternary compound Nd2Fe14B, made practical magnets from it, and in 1987 GM built a plant to manufacture our magnequench materials – corporate research nirvana!  To this day the world’s most powerful magnets are still based on Nd2Fe14B.  All glory is fleeting, however; magnequench was sold off in 1995.  We worked on sensors until the déjà vu moment in 1999 when GM divested all its components businesses.  After turning to hydrogen storage materials for fuel cell vehicles for about 10 years, it was déjà vu all over again as we returned to magnets in 2010 with the charge of identifying rare earth-free materials in response to changes in the rare earth market.

In 2014, after 37 years of service, my wife Peggy and I (married in 1982) retired together with our daughter Helen to Sedona, AZ.  We love northern Arizona with its myriad opportunities for hiking, sightseeing, and gold panning.  I consider myself blessed to have gone to Penn in GH and to have enjoyed a stimulating and satisfying career for which Penn prepared me.