Visiting Chemistry Professor Roald Hoffmann, CC '59, says that the tension between two opposing forces makes things interesting, and he is living evidence of this theory.
Hoffmann is a chemist who writes poetry, plays, and non-fiction. He has won almost every award in the field of chemistry, including the Nobel Prize in 1981, yet his manner is modest. He is an agnostic, yet he is interested in religion and has written a book about issues that unite science and Judaism.
This semester Hoffmann is doing research and writing at Columbia. He is on sabbatical from Cornell University, where he teaches chemistry as the Frank H.T. Rhodes professor of humane letters. At Columbia he lectures but does not teach any classes.
Hoffmann was born in Poland in 1937. After surviving World War II, he and his mother came to New York in 1949. Hoffmann attended Stuyvesent High School, where he pursued subjects that set the stage for his life: he was interested in science and wanted to do medical research, but he was also a member of his school's literary magazine staff.
Hoffmann attended Columbia College, where he majored in chemistry. He credits Columbia's Core Curriculum, however, with almost convincing him to become an art history major. "The world opened up to me at Columbia," Hoffmann said, adding that Columbia "planted in my mind the relationship between science and psychology, art, and the humanities."
Such an education is especially important for students now, according to Hoffmann, who encourages students take humanities and science courses in order to "explore as widely as possible in an age where there are so many career options."
Hoffmann received a Ph.D from Harvard University in 1962 and spent an additional three years doing research there. He then accepted a position at Cornell and has been teaching graduate and undergraduate students for 36 years.
Hoffmann's work in theoretical chemistry uses physics to explain molecular shape sand reactions. He won the Nobel Prize for work done in 1965 with fellow scientist Kinichi Fukui. Their discovery of the principle of conservation of orbital symmetry explains electron movement and has become a tenet of the rules of chemical reactions as well as standard material for organic chemistry classes.
Colleagues offer high praise for Hoffmann, both as a scientist and as a poet.
"Hoffmann is a very distinguished theoretical chemist. We are delighted to have him here for a semester," said Richard Bersohn, chemistry professor and departmental representative.
Professor of Germanic Languages Babak Ebrahimian, who met Hoffmann as a Cornell undergraduate, said he primarily remembers Hoffmann not as a scientist but as one of a group of poets sitting in a café early one morning.
Ebrahimian, who was invited to the café by poet A.R. Ammons, recalled what he heard that morning as "the exchange between a highly achieved scientist and poet talking poetry and creating beautiful music with each of their accents." Ebrahimian said he found it "wonderful to see someone who could use both sides of his gifts," referring to Hoffmann's scientific and poetic abilities.
Winning a Nobel Prize is far from being Hoffmann's only achievement, and science is not his only interest. As Ebrahimian said, "Hoffmann is aware of the power and beauty of words as well as science."
Among Hoffmann's works is a play entitled Oxygen that he co-authored with chemist Carl Djerassi. The play is about the discovery of oxygen, and it deals with the moral consequences of competition in science, as well as revolutions in both chemistry and politics. Oxygen opens this month in San Diego and will be adapted for radio broadcast in Germany and England.
Hoffmann's published materials also include three non-fiction books, all of which relate science and humanities. Old Wine, New Flasks, co-authored by Shira Leibowitz Schmidt, discusses the interaction between science and religion. Hoffman said he was inspired to write this after meeting Schmidt, a scholar living in an Orthodox Jewish community in Israel who is also interested in science.
In Chemistry Imagined Hoffman responds to 30 collages created by artist Vivian Torrence and addresses how an artist relates to chemistry. The Same and Not the Same uses psychology to explore tensions and dichotomies in chemistry.
"I am not as good a poet as a chemist," joked Hoffmann, a claim that is belied by his authorship of three published collections of poems. He estimates that about one-fifth of his poems are about science, and the others are about "the usual things" such as nature, love, and childhood experiences.
Hoffmann admits that it is a struggle to pursue so many different pursuits, but that he couldn't do without any of them.
"Science is fun, I enjoy teaching, and I can't imagine living without writing as a way to express myself," said Hoffmann, who said he sees his writing as the result of "a drive to communicate with other people."
Despite this, Ebrahimian said Hoffmann is never too busy for human interaction.
"He's humble enough to return a phone call or an e-mail. He is inviting and embracing of people, and, although he is busy, he will always find time to talk to you," Ebrahimian said.
Ebrahimian said that Hoffmann is a "curious human being who is always wondering what's the next problem to be solved. Age hasn't changed him. He is still a childlike, curious inventor with a love and understanding of words who is still trying to develop and grow."
In the future, Hoffmann plans to carry on with his scientific endeavors in addition to writing a play about individual and collective guilt for World War II.
Additionally, Hoffmann's years at Columbia have had an impact on his future goals.
"I'm still trying to write that perfect 'A' paper for my professors," Hoffmann said.