Roald Hoffman: chemistry as cabaret

by Diana Wichtel / 07 February, 2013
Messing about with molecules won Roald Hoffmann a Nobel Prize but writing poetry helps him comprehend the world.
Roald Hoffman
Roald Hoffman, photo/Roald Hoffman Collection

“Look for the connections between things. That’s what makes us human.” – Roald Hoffmann.

The professor is in when I ring. Whether his voice will come to the party is another matter. “Yes, I had some awful flu. I got it in Israel,” sighs Roald Hoffmann, Nobel Prize-winning chemist, emeritus professor at Cornell University, speaking in cautious sotto voce from Ithaca, New York. He was in Israel to give a lecture, catch up with family. “I was busy seeing relatives and I couldn’t give in to the illness. So I have laryngitis and I have two lectures to give on Wednesday.”

At 75, after a lifetime of staggering achievement including his 1981 Nobel Prize for ground-breaking work messing about with molecules – “theoretically anticipating the course of chemical reactions” – he is not noticeably letting up.

Hoffmann is, as one interviewer noted, “an especially complex molecule” himself. He is a Holocaust survivor who began to write poetry at the age of 40, essays and philosophical articles at 50 and plays after he turned 60. “Narrative, metaphor and various things like this – I wish scientists would accept these,” he says. “But we are under this burden of the more mathematical the better. These ways of shaping the world around us and thinking about them which are so natural to people in the humanities are hard for scientists to accept because they don’t sound scientistic.”

Yet the motivation for art and science are not so dissimilar. “I write poetry,” says Hoffmann in his Nobel autobiography, “to penetrate the world around me, and to comprehend my reactions to it.”

Hoffmann also co-organises and performs (sometimes resplendent, according to an online video, in gingham shirt and glittering gold jacket) at something called the Entertaining Science cabaret at Greenwich Village’s Cornelia Street Cafe.

The monthly event puts Hoffmann’s contention that everything is connected to the test by mixing actors, musicians and scientists and waiting for things to go bang. It began when a scientist friend wanted to arrange a reading from his new book. Even with Hoffmann along, they weren’t famous enough for the cafe owner. Hoffmann roped in Oliver Sacks, known for finding the metaphor and narrative in science in such brilliant books as The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. “Oliver agreed and, of course, now we were famous enough,” writes Hoffmann.

Spend some time in his company and you suspect it would take a lot more than a rogue virus to silence him. “They’re making good use of me. I’m going to give three lectures,” he says, of coming down our way. One will be for those of us who have forgotten everything we never knew about ribosomes and the tetrahedral structure of bonding around carbon. “A Science All About Change” it’s called. “They renamed it. They didn’t like my title.” The original title possibly had something about art and philosophy in it. Hoffmann likes to make connections between modern science – “this powerful social system of gaining reliable knowledge”, he calls it, in his essay “On the Sublime in Science” – and other ways people have used to learn about the world and themselves.

He will begin with the chemistry done before chemists, what he refers to in that essay as “the piecewise, rickety, fuzzy knowing without seeing” of times before the microscope. What he has called “the simple magic of stinks, bangs and colours” will be addressed. “People do identify chemists as people who make things go bang,” he says. “But of course explosions are not the way that your local chemical company functions, because that’s a wasteful way to make things.”

There will be art, alchemy and architecture. He will talk molecules. “We’re attracted to molecules because they’re simple and symmetrical, but the most beautiful molecules in this world are not beautiful and symmetrical but complicated, and they look like a tape worm or like pasta congealed from some soup,” he says. “It will be fun. If you come, I think you’ll like it.”

Indeed. So it seems, along with the science, he is part shaman, part showman. He enjoys the ambiguities of his day job. “I will revel in the fact that people see in chemistry both harm and benefit,” says Hoffmann, of the lecture. “I go to a doctor and get a medicine for my laryngitis; I worry about the side effects. This is not a popular view in chemistry but I think that having this Janus-faced image of chemistry as causing both harm and benefit makes it human; because that’s how people are. They’re not all evil, they’re not all good. They have the capability of being both.”

Roald Hoffman with his father in 1938
Hoffman with his father in 1938, photo/Roald Hoffman Collection

Good and evil: Hoffmann is in a position to talk about these with more than scholarly authority. He survived the Holocaust by hiding out in Poland, as did my father. The odds against us being here to have this conversation must be astronomical.

Hoffmann was born in Zloczow, Poland, in 1937. The Nazis came in 1941. Hoffmann, his mother and father were sent to a labour camp. When news of the extermination camps began to spread, his father, Hillel Safran, arranged for his wife and small son to be hidden by a Ukrainian schoolteacher in a schoolhouse attic. His father remained at the camp, leading plans for a breakout until he was betrayed, tortured and murdered.

Hoffmann and his mother later moved to a store room. They hid in a hole under the floorboards when the police visited. “I still remember the smell of the wet earth. That’s something you don’t forget,” Hoffmann has written. He has spoken of feeling, amid the horror, enveloped in a “cocoon of love”. He was seven when the Russians liberated the town in 1944.

“I don’t have a good memory all in all, which is not a good quality for a writer, though I do have a great memory for chemistry. It could be that the lack of a good memory was a defence mechanism, I don’t know,” he says. “We were fortunate my mother lived to almost 95 and she was unafraid to talk about things that happened,” he says. “Memory reconstructs itself in various ways. There were a number of times when I’d written some poems and I said to my mother, ‘I don’t know if it happened this way, I just made it up.’ And she said, ‘It happened exactly that way.’ So maybe I should do more of that.”

In his play Something that Belongs to You, an elderly survivor, Frieda, now in America, is visited by a member of the Ukrainian family that hid her and her son during the war. The visitor wishes to return Frieda’s wedding ring. The old woman refuses to take it. The play is clearly autobiographical. “Yes. I didn’t understand that when she gave back the ring,” says Hoffmann, of his mother. In the play, Frieda recalls the terror committed not just by the Nazis. “I saw some Ukrainians, my classmates, dragging a man, yelling ‘Parkhatyi zhid!’” It means, she tells her grandchild, “Lousy Jew.” You can understand why someone would want nothing back from those times. “Whenever she thought of Ukraine, she thought of her sister being killed, when she was weak or for other things,” he says.

“But let’s talk about other things,” he says, ready to leave the past for today. “We can talk about this. It is me. But I am also a child of America. I came when I was 11 and we took, as all immigrants, advantage of education and everything that was good and so did many people who came to New Zealand.”

So chemistry. It was something of an accidental vocation. Hoffmann originally wanted to do art history. “Yeah. I didn’t have the courage to spring that on my parents.” Any regrets? “No, I managed to get back to it and it’s easier to make a living as a chemist, no one’s going to argue.”

There can be few examples of the American Dream that have played out with more distinction, though getting there involved the loss of almost everything. Hoffmann has had three different surnames: his father’s name, that of the stepfather, when his mother remarried after the war, and Hoffmann, the name of a dead German whose papers his stepfather bought after the war. It seems a terrible irony that the family had a better chance of getting into postwar America with a German name than a Polish one. “We had no time for irony,” Hoffmann emails me, when I write to ask about this. “Or for suing the Italian insurance company … that insured the lives of those lost and didn’t pay. We didn’t have time (and it was dangerous) to claim our property. People wanted to get on with their new lives. That’s why the immigrants to the United States or New Zealand were successful.”

Roald Hoffman with his mother and stepfather Paul Hoffman after the war
Hoffman with his mother and stepfather Paul Hoffmann after the war, photo/Roald Hoffman Collection

As to why he kept the name Hoffmann, “To switch back to my original name would have been dangerous in the first years, an admission of immigration on false papers. To switch back later would have been perhaps an insult to my stepfather,” he says. “Life is complicated.”

So, does science have anything to say about evil? “No, and that is a sad thing about science.” But in the world of science, questions of ethics must be constantly addressed. “I’ve just been looking at behaviour of German physicists before World War II, as a quarter of their colleagues were fired from university jobs and they did nothing. It was not in their culture to protest or they made mild protests and then acquiesced to what the rule of law was. Or what they perceived was the rule of law,” he says. “Just to transfer the situation to somewhere else in the Anglo-Saxon world, if one started arresting Muslims, would people object or dismiss them according to some law?”

Science has its limits. Some research, he believes, should not be undertaken. “That’s not a popular view among scientists. I think research on the correlation of intelligence and race is not to be done because our society has already made a compact, all societies, and that is that it doesn’t matter. So the outcome of such research, whichever way it comes out, is going to be misused,” he says.

“Obviously research that hurts people in some way or another gets too close to what the Nazi doctors did.”

Einstein said in the 50s he regretted supporting the development of nuclear weapons but that Germany’s attempts to develop the technology provided some justification. This seems to illustrate the complexities of ethical decisions scientists face. “Yes. And I do believe there was a good reason to develop those weapons. And – others disagree – I think using them in Japan did save both Japanese and Allied lives.”

Ethics is like a limb that has to be exercised, Hoffmann says. The practice of publishing in science provides a useful workout. He has published 560 articles. “That continual exercise of interacting with the audience, deciding who to cite and who not to cite – that’s actually in part an ethical decision.” So there’s some self-examination each time. “Yes, and you do that too as a journalist.” If you think about it too much, it’s scary. “And one must not let it paralyse you with fright. Fortunately you have a deadline,” he says brightly.

Life is complicated. Hoffmann describes himself as “an atheist who is moved by religion”. In “On the Sublime in Science”, he writes of locating the transcendent in the act of making, whether a pot or a poem or a molecule. “Through acts of small human creation, not as often accompanied by ethical judgments as they should be, we carve out the sublime, and so join in the mandate of Genesis.”

All these connections. Do some of his colleagues find him a little eccentric, perhaps? “A little bit. For instance, I think scientists are filthy rich and don’t need any more research money.” That can’t be a popular. “No.” His reasons? He cites Cornell University. “[It’s] a liberal arts university, not an engineering school. Its faculty competes effectively for government and state research funds, bringing in US$400 million every year. US$380 million of this is for science and engineering, less than US$1 million for arts and humanities. The total budget of the US governmental Endowment for the Arts or the Endowment for the Humanities is about half of what the scientists of one university, Cornell, bring in a year,” he says. “What I would really like is if New Zealand and the US supported the arts and the humanities more.” No argument here.

As for his own contribution to the arts, “it is an interesting question. What do my colleagues think of me writing poetry? On one hand, if they write an autobiography, they’ll have epigraphs, they’ll have poems in there,” he says. But there are detractors.

As a poet, Hoffmann makes scientists “come out of the closet”. Photo/Getty Images

“There’ll be comments like, ‘He has the luxury of doing it.’ And they are right. Would an assistant professor in chemistry have the courage to write poetry and put that on his publication list? The worst response is, ‘It’s easy. If I had the time, I could do it.’ Because they don’t know that a poem takes more drafts than the scientific paper.”

The best response: “I make people come out of the closet. There are scientists who do have other passions. Now, it may be something totally inartistic like remodelling an old house. Or it may be playing in a jazz group. Somehow they don’t tell their colleagues about it but they tell me.”

Out of the closet and off to the science cabaret. But not today. Hoffmann’s voice is giving out. Though even at low volume, he radiates the chemical intensity that comes from engaging in making things: molecules, poems, connections. He has been asked about what drives him, the source of that fierce motive force. “It comes from the struggle of trying to understand the world, beautiful and terrible as it is,” he said. “It comes from survival and the joy of life.”

A SCIENCE ALL ABOUT CHANGE, Auckland Museum Events Centre, February 13, 6.00pm.
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