When the Nobel committee awarded the 1981 prize in chemistry to Roald Hoffmann, they couldn’t have known they were encouraging a poet, playwright, and art critic. Those identities emerged later for the Cornell University professor, who shared his Nobel with Kenichi Fukui for their theories, developed independently, concerning the course of chemical reactions.
“Building a career in poetry is much harder than in science,” Hoffmann wrote in a 1992 addendum to his Nobel Prize autobiographical sketch. He speaks from personal experience: Since 1984, well over 100 of his poems have been published, many of them translated into languages as diverse as Spanish and Bengali.
His interest in art goes back even further, to his college days at Columbia University. “One way to sum up my experience there was to say I had enough courage to tell my parents I didn’t want to be a doctor,” Hoffmann says, “but I didn’t have the courage to tell my parents that I wanted to be an art historian.”
The Renaissance man will complete that circle when he delivers an illustrated lecture on chemistry’s psychological dimension and its connections to the arts at the Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery in Saratoga Springs this month. The talk, titled “Chemistry’s Essential Tensions—A Different Look at a Science,” is presented in conjunction with an exhibition at the Tang called “Molecules That Matter,” which combines art, science, and popular culture in displays about carbon-based molecules discovered or synthesized during the 20th century. Hoffmann was a consultant to the exhibition, helping to decide which molecules to include. (They are: aspirin, isooctane, penicillin, polyethylene, nylon, DNA, progestin, DDT, Prozac, and buckminsterfullerene.)
Hoffmann’s talk is likely to lean toward the thought provoking. “Science… in various ways distances itself from humanity and I’m intent on breaking that down,” he says. “Chemistry is about change, it is about molecules and their transformation. [But] there is no way in the world that people are going to feel comfortable with chemistry—ever—because people are ambivalent about change in their lives.… And chemistry is so fundamentally about change, about essential transformation, that I don’t think we can feel totally unambiguous about it.”
In presenting his talk, which describes “three views of chemistry,” Hoffmann cites examples from art, architecture, and psychology. He revels in making these connections, because he believes that people need to better understand science in order for our system of democracy to work, and he relishes the idea of doing the presentation in an art museum, “because then I’m encountering a different audience.”
Perhaps unstated, but always in the background of the discussion are essential questions of humanity, guilt, and goodness. Hoffmann was born Jewish in Poland in 1937—he lost most of his family, and a significant portion of his childhood, to the Holocaust.
“These things are important to me,” he says, perhaps a bit reluctantly. “Sometimes I think that maybe it would be good if questions of ethics and social responsibility did not come my way, but then on the other hand, after some reflection, I’m grateful that the world has put such problems my way because then I have to think about them, and what I really like is being asked to think—if I have the time—of anything new. Anything.”
“Chemistry’s Essential Tensions—A Different Look at a Science” will be presented at 8pm on November 14 at the Tang Museum at Skidmore College. “Molecules That Matter” continues through April 13, 2008.
(518) 580-8080; www.skidmore.edu/tang.