October 28, 2014

CORNELL CLOSE-UPS | Professor Emeritus Roald Hoffmann

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A writer, Holocaust survivor and a Nobel Prize winner in theoretical chemistry, Roald Hoffmann, the Frank H. T. Rhodes professor of humane letters, emeritus, said his journey to Cornell began on the other side of the globe.

Professor Roald Hoffmann (Michelle Feldman / Sun Senior Editor)

Professor Roald Hoffmann (Michelle Feldman / Sun Senior Editor)

Professor Roald Hoffmann (Michelle Feldman / Sun Senior Editor)

Professor Roald Hoffmann (Michelle Feldman / Sun Senior Editor)

Professor Roald Hoffmann (Michelle Feldman / Sun Senior Editor)

Hoffmann  — the son of a family of Holocaust survivors — said he spent a year of his childhood hiding with his family from the Nazi occupation in a small Ukrainian village and that the Holocaust has had a lasting impact on his life.

“I’m still scared of people in uniform — even the doorman because of what it meant during the war,” he said.

According to Hoffman, his interest in chemistry did not begin when he first arrived in the United States at the age of 11. Rather, he became immersed in the field during his undergraduate years at Columbia and graduate research at Harvard.

“[I am fascinated by the] mixture of rigor with uncertainty [and] the beauty of individual facts rather than overall principles,” he said.

He explained that immigrants such as himself are pushed into being “observers,” who try to penetrate an understanding of how the world works from the outside.

“[It’s] a lot like science,” Hoffmann said. “[You’re] trying to figure out what’s going on.”

Hoffmann won the Nobel Prize in 1981 — while he was working at Cornell — for his work in developing theories about the life-cycle of chemical reactions. However, he said the work that he was awarded the prize for was completed earlier in his life, when he was in his late 20s.

Though he said he recognizes the incredible honor and merits of the award, Hoffmann also discussed the difficulties associated with its acceptance — namely, that many professionals look at a Prize-winner’s subsequent work more critically.

“The only people for whom the Nobel Prize is an unalloyed plus is for your mother and your university,” Hoffmann said.

Hoffmann — who has also published 10 books of poetry and three plays — said his interest in creative writing began at Columbia, where he was able to sit in on humanities classes.

As both a writer and a scientist, Hoffman said he is always trying to have work published.

“I was exposed to arts and humanities in college at Columbia and it took seed. Somehow I kept reading even though I was committed to chemistry,” he said. “I didn’t try to write a poem ’till I was 40. It took me seven years to get published. But the imperative to publish was from science.”

Hoffman added that his work in chemistry has also led him to publish work in philosophy journals, saying that the fields are interdisciplinary.

“I am inherently reflective about the sciences, so I always think about why we do what we do in science,” he said. “That has brought me into philosophy.”

Additionally, Hoffmann said he believes interdisciplinary work is important due to the overlap between the fields of art and science.

“[The world is] separated in a number of ways,” he said. “We compartmentalize our lives. The arts and sciences belong together.”

According to Hoffman, his motivation for writing and chemistry comes from his natural passion for the subjects.

“I went along doing in science the next thing I wanted to do. I was not trying to cure cancer. I just did what I thought was interesting,” he said. “I never asked myself what I’m going to do next. I just did what came naturally.”