Nobelist Roald Hoffmann: Chemist, Poet, Above All A Teacher

[Editor’s note: Next spring, Cornell University professor Roald Hoffmann will be honored by his peers with the American Chemical Society’s Priestley Medal, the society’s highest award. For Hoffmann, 52, it won’t be his first trip to a dais. He is a Nobel laureate, having won the 1981 prize for chem- istry. And, as the recipient of both the A.C. Cope Award in Organic Chemistry and the ACS’s award for inor- ganic chemistry, he is the only person in the history of the

Julia King
Dec 10, 1989

[Editor’s note: Next spring, Cornell University professor Roald Hoffmann will be honored by his peers with the American Chemical Society’s Priestley Medal, the society’s highest award. For Hoffmann, 52, it won’t be his first trip to a dais. He is a Nobel laureate, having won the 1981 prize for chem- istry. And, as the recipient of both the A.C. Cope Award in Organic Chemistry and the ACS’s award for inor- ganic chemistry, he is the only person in the history of the society to be honored for his work in different subdisciplines of his science. While Hoffmann is famous for his achievements as a theoretical chemist, he is also an accomplished artist and a published poet. Above all though, he considers himself a teacher. In his 25 years at Cornell, he has taught chemistry to both science and nonscience students and consistently taught introductory chemistry courses to first-year stu- dents. More recently he completed filming “The World of Chemistry,” a 26-part video series that will air on public television and cable channels beginning in 1990 (see story on page 7).

Born in Poland in 1937 to “a happy Jewish family in dark days in Europe,” Hoffmann emigrated to the United States with his mother and stepfather in 1949 after spending two years in a labor camp and another year in hiding in the attic of a schoolhouse near his hometown of Zloczow. After completing his elementary education in New York City, he went on to Stuyvesant High School, one of the city’s selective science schools. He received his B.A. in chemistry from Columbia University in 1958 and from there went on to Harvard to earn his doctorate in chemical physics four years later.

Hoffmann was only 28 when he made a name for himself with the Woodward-Hoffmann rules, a set of guidelines for determining whether and how thermal and photochemical reactions occur, and his use of molecular theory to predict chemical actuality is recognized as one of this century’s great contributions to his field.

In the following interview with contributing editor Julia King, Hoff mann talks about his multifaceted career as a theorist, scientist, teacher, and poet, and shares his thoughts on the current state of science literacy and education. He also offers readers an idea of what they might expect next from a scientist who has spent a lifetime reflecting about the relation between science and human values, and the behavior of molecules and people.]

Q You distinguished yourself in the world of science very early in your career and have steadily steered a course of achievement with the Nobel Prize and now the Priestley Medal. Yet you’re only ‘your early 50s. Did you expect be this far advanced in your career at such a relatively young age?

A I came rather late to chemistry. An interesting thing about chemistry is that almost without exception it requires no precocity. I take this as a positive thing. In contrast to music or mathematics, it means you don’t have to show talent at an early age, and that’s great. Chemistry is based on mature judgments and juggling things that are uncertain. The same things, I think, are true in literature and a great many other things.

I didn’t decide to become a chemist until halfway through college, and I almost went into other things, art history in particular. Initially, I started out with interests in mathematics and medical research—I actually started college as a premed student.

If I think back to what might have introduced me to chemistry early on, there were chemistry sets, things like that. There were two books that I read when I was 10 or 11 years old. One was the biography of Marie Curie, by her daughter Irene Curie. The other was a biography of George Washington Carver. Later, what also introduced me to chemistry was during the summers. One summer I had a research job at the National Bureau of Standards. Another summer, I worked at Brookhaven National Laboratory.

I don’t know if I ever thought I’d get this far.

Q How important is teaching to you?

A I get a lot of personal satisfaction from sort of cooperating with and awakening the intelligence and the talent that is in people’s minds. I say cooperating because it’s already there. This is how Aristotle talked about the teaching process, as a cooperative one between teacher and student. The basis is there. If it’s not a kind of awakening, it’s a kind of helping to formalize what is already there. It’s not the facts so much that are important as the ways of dealing and arranging the facts that are there.

Q You’ve recently completed a televised chemistry course for a general audience, and this year you’ll again be teaching a chemistry course for nonscience majors. What attracts you so strongly to address nonscience students?

A I think it’s very important for science. I think we have neglected the audience of people who are not in technology or science, those who are going to be lawyers, politicians, whatever it is in our society. I’m teaching this course to address this audience. I thought I’d expose them to chemistry in the context of world culture, literature, politics, sociology, economics, taking every opportunity to digress and to relate what we are talking about in chemistry to some aspects in their lives or the culture. I think that’s the way to weave in chemistry and to make it natural.

Q How do you begin that process, especially with students who are unfamiliar with chemistry?

A Actually, the way we started out is that I took two papers from the current chemical literature. Then we smiled to read those papers, stopping at every word, and I’d give a lecture. It doesn’t matter what you start on. The idea is: Here is a research paper, and this is what chemists are interested in. Let’s try to understand this. Why are chemists interested in this? I know without planning things that other things will turn up in the course of any half-year that are going to be related to those papers because everything in the world is connected to everything else. You can build a chemistry course around anything. Take anything in your environment, and I can build a course around it.

Q In this cooperative process of teaching, what’s the most important thing you hope to instill in your students?

A I want them to connect up the world around them. Even the chemistry isn’t important, but I want them to include chemistry in their range of interests. I think if you are lucky enough to plant the capability of making connections between different parts of our experience, you’ve performed the most important job of education because they can ask those questions applied to anything.

Q In your view, what role can scientists like yourself play in educating the general public about science?

A I think that scientists have done pretty badly. They’ve taken money from the public and they have not told the public what it is they’re doing with it. And then they just cry when the public gets upset about Alar in apples and how they don’t understand this. I think the responsibility of scientists is to tell people what they are doing. It’s a difficult task—given the walls of jargon that scientists have built up for very good reasons—to enhance communications among themselves around their own work. But they have to get out. I believe that they must be forced to, since they are not going to do these kinds of things of their own will. They’re very comfortable.

I think, one can use a carrot-and-stick approach to this. If you give somebody money to do research, impose on them the obligation to talk about it in some way that’s understandable. If you have a lecture series at a university and invite a distinguished scientist to give three lectures and pay him some amount or give him some honor in another way, tell him that one of those lectures has to be for the general public. He’ll take it. The carrot is there. The imposition of giving the general lecture will be painful, but he’ll do it. I think one could impose the same incentives in the research grants sys- tem to make people present the results of their research. Then, Sen. Proxmire, who’s no longer there, wouldn’t have to give “The Golden Fleece Award” to vanous scientists. Tell people why you’re extracting these weird organs from these weird organisms or doing such and such. I think scientists must speak more to the public and that society has the right to demand it;

Q Is your PBS series, “The World of Chemistry,” something that will make science more accessible to the general public?

A It will in part, but one must really view it in a double context of what it is and at what budget it was produced. It’s a course on a junior college nonscience major level. In the United States, that means [it is designed for] somebody who is likely not to have had high school chemistry, because less than 40% of people who graduated from high school have had high school chemistry. One may have had high school chemistry but nothing more if they’re a nonscience major. In terms of level, I interpret it as the most beginning level you can imagine. I don’t want to say lower track high school, but at some high school level. But it’s directed at an adult viewer.

Something about the level of presentation—which is relevant to the budget to some ,extent—is that you get what you pay for in this business. I want to set it in another perspective. In terms of our budget for all 26 programs, we were operating on one half the budget of a single “Nova” program, about one-quarter the budget of the two specials on the air this last year—”The Infinite Voyage” (a 10-part series) and “Ring of Truth.” So, it’sprofessionally done, but it’s on a lower budget.

Q Is there some sort of test viewers take at the end of the course to receive credit?

A If they want to receive credit, they would register at a participating junior college and perhaps take an exam at the end. The whole package is not just 26 half-hours, but also a book and some teaching materials. I think, realistically, of the 500,000 viewers who might be viewing every one of these programs, a very small fraction are ever going to be taking it for credit. It’s not going to reach many people, but there are very many interesting subaudiences— women still stuck in the home—and there are some older people who want to watch something other than soap operas. There are all kinds of interesting audiences, which in some ways are more important to me personally than kids who might be interested in science as a result of this.

Q I understand you’re working on another PBS film project, “The Molecular World.” Can you tell me about that?

A “The Molecular World” is now a plan. We don’t have any money to do it. We’re working on it in the sense of having written the treatments or scripts, but we’re trying to raise the money. We’re not in production now. It’s a series of three one-hour specials for prime-time evening PBS viewing. They are informative, but rather than teaching chemistry, they are about chemistry, to give some image of what the field is. They would be produced by the same production company, but there would be some other differences. It would involve a kind of scientific committee which I would head up, so I would actually be in charge of that. But I would not be in it. I would not be onscreen, which is just as well because I think I did not do so well in the 26 one-half hours.

Q Why do you think you didn’t do so well on camera in “The World of Chemistry”?

A Well, there wasn’t enough money to send me to acting school. I think I learned and I grew better, but I did not feel very comfortable. I just didn’t seem to adjust to the talking into the camera. I needed a live audience. The other thing that I was uncomfortable with is that when I give a talk I get going and get stronger as I go on,, and about 20 minutes in is when I get going. It’s like people waking up in the morning. Here I had to perform in a commercial mode. That is, I had one-minute slots at the beginning and end of the programs and 45-second slots in between. I can’t get going in 45 seconds, even if I do it 15 times in a row the way I sometimes had to. The way I function as a teacher is by sort of a discursive, associative mode where I begin to weave several stories, and then they all come together. Well, there is no time to weave a story in 45 seconds. And I work by connecting up things that seem disconnected, and it’s a different mode of operation.

Q You mentioned that you almost switched from premed to a major in art history when you were in college. Do you sustain an interest in this area?

A I have an interest in art in many ways. Several things I’ve written involve art in one way or another. I’ve written a paper on chemical representation where I look at chemical structures—these little drawings that chemists draw—and I ask what are these? Are they art? What kind of art? I’ve written another paper dealing essentially with molecular aesthetics. It looks at what chemists do and at the concept of beauty that they have. I also have a collaboration with an artist, Vivian Torrence. We’re doing a book together. She’s doing a set of collages, and I’m writing essays or poems for the facing pages. The theme in general is the essence of chemistry or the spiritual content of chemistry.

Q Your own papers are filled with drawings. In your view, how important is it for scientists to be able to communicate their theories or ideas graphically?

A It’s very important in chemistry, and what’s interesting is that chemists don’t have more drawing ability. They’re not selected to be chemists on the basis of their ability to represent things, but it’s crucial that chemists communicate information in three dimensions. They are not talented at doing so, but they manage. They cope with the situation by inventing a code, a science structure by which they can translate a model. The problem is how to conyey in two dimensions a three-dimensional model. It’s interesting how a group of people not talented at doing something adapt to the problem of doing it. That interests me on a psychological level.

Q In addition to your collaboration with Vivian Torrence, you have another book ofpoetry due to be published soon. Given your research and teaching responsibilities, where do you find the time to write poetry?

A I find time. I don’t find enough time, but you know it could be that if I had all the time to write poetry then I wouldn’t be able to do it. One needs some other thing to divert one and to form a focus for thinking while these other things might be rolling around in another part of your. brain. One needs a source for ideas.

QDo you have a favorite poet?

A I guess I’ve been strongly influenced by a colleague of mine here at Cornell who I think is America’s greatest contemporary poet, and he’s sort of my guru in poetry. (Archie”) Ammons. He’s now in his early 60s. I love his poetry. He’s a great natural philosopher. Other people early on also influenced me. Mark Van Doren, a great teacher at Columbia, and other people like Wallace Stevens had an influence on me. It’s just reading a multitude of things.

Q Do you have other specific projects in mind for the near future?

A Somewhere down the line, I would like to do still something for television. It’s something in some ways akin to the course that I’m now teaching for nonchemistry students; that is, to connect chemistry to everything else. I’d like to do something where the chemical analysis of some phenomenon is just one component of a general placement of an object in world culture, I could imagine, for instance, a camera coming in on a candle, and then looking at the chemistry of combustion and what goes on there. And from there going to a study of French painting like those by Georges de Latour in a certain period of the 18th century—where the illummation proceeded from a candle—and go into a history of illumination and then to fire in general, the role of fire. I think by doing something like that you could place chemistry as just a normal activity in the course of human beings trying to understand the universe around them.

I also have an idea for a book that has to do with the essential tensions in chemistry in particular. Maybe it will be called ‘The Same and Not The Same.” That’s one of the tensions in chemistry. The book looks at dichotomies. Micro/macro, natural/unnatural, the same and not the same, static and dynamic. It analyzes the science by analogies with literature and other things. I would like to do something on this, because I think there is some duality of this type—the hidden and the revealed—in everything in life. I think it’s interesting to bring maybe a psychological perceptive, a literary perceptive to the chemical field. So I have a notion of maybe doing a lot of collaborations with people in the arts.

Within chemistry, I’m a theoretical chemist, and I’ve shifted fields a few times in applying my theories to different subfields. I’ve gone through organic and inorganic, and now I’m working on solid-state and surface chemistry: I’ve worked in each of these fields for about 10 years or so, and then I’ve switched. Now, I’m in the middle of the solid-state/surface chemistry, and I don’t know what I’ll switch to next. I just can’t predict. On the other hand, there are these other activities which have taken up a lot of my time. I usually don’t think that farahead. I’ve always just done the next thing that is interesting.