Roald Hoffmann

Roald Hoffmann was born in 1937 in Zloczow, Poland (now Zoloczew, Ukraine). He immigrated to the United States with his family in 1949. He graduated from Columbia University (1958) and received his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1962. He collaborated with Robert B. Woodward at Harvard during the next three years and then joined the Cornell University faculty in 1965.

He has made numerous contributions in the field of chemistry, most notably in the area of geometrical structure and reactivity of molecules. His contributions have earned him numerous honors, including the 1981 Nobel Prize for Chemistry shared with Kenichi Fukui (Japan). Hoffmann and his collaborator, R. B. Woodward, developed the Woodward-Hoffmann rules governing the course of certain chemical reactions based on the electronic structures of the reactants. Hoffmann undertook the research leading to his share of the prize when he and Woodward sought an explanation of the unexpected course taken by a reaction that Woodward and his colleagues had hoped to use in the synthesis of the complicated molecule of vitamin B . Hoffmann and Woodward discovered that many reactions involving the formation or breaking of rings of atoms take courses that depend on an identifiable symmetry in the mathematical descriptions of the molecular orbitals that undergo the most change. Their theory, expressed in a set of statements now called the Woodward-Hoffmann rules, accounts for the failure of certain cyclic compounds to form from apparently appropriate starting materials, though others are readily produced; it also clarifies the geometric arrangement of the atoms in the products formed when the rings in cyclic compounds are broken.

In addition to sharing the Nobel Prize, the American Chemical Society has honored him with the Priestley Medal, the Arthur C. Cope Award in Organic Chemistry, and the American Chemical Society Award in Inorganic Chemistry. He received also Pimentel Award in Chemical Education, Award in Pure Chemistry, Monsanto Award, National Medal of Science. Hoffmann is currently a professor of chemistry at Cornell University, focusing in the area of applied theoretical chemistry.

Roald Hoffmann has been very active in communicating science to non-scientists, and he is also an accomplished poet and writer. He published two scientific-popular books: Chemistry imagined: Reflections on Science (1993) and The Same and Not the Same (1995). In 1993, Hoffmann hosted a 26-segment television documentary on the Public Broadcasting Service entitled The World of Chemistry.

Roald Hoffmann became the prominent member of the Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences of America.

Chemistry imagined: Reflections on Science
by Roald Hoffmann
Illustrated by Vivian Torrence
Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993

The book blends the essays and poems of a Nobel laureate with the skills of an artist to show how the sciences, particularly chemistry, work and how they relate to many aspects of our lives. Absorbing topical collages accompany each written work, expressing the creative side of science. A beautiful popularization of chemistry.

Comment by Lea Rosson DeLong
Chemistry is like a language and at the beginning of Chemistry imagined: Reflections on Science there is a short Chemistry/English dictionary. People don't need to be afraid of jargon and technicalities since Prof. Hoffmann has avoided these traps without losing an apex of rigor. The book can be read in the order in which it was written, as I myself have done, going forwards and backwards; but it is also worthwhile to read it following Torrences collages or one's own curiosity. For myself, I found two chapters, The Chemist and The Grail, particularly rewarding. Torrences collages are like puzzles: you need some effort to get all the information they hide. At first they are only pleasant, then, you discover more and more things as well as that they are finely attuned to Prof. Hoffmann's text.
Reviewed by Jose Elguero

The Same and Not the Same
by Roald Hoffmann
The Pegram Lecture Series
Columbia University Press, 1995

When we wash an apple before we eat it, we are thinking not merely of the dirt which may still be on it, but of the pesticides used in agricultural production. When we take medication for sickness, we may fear side effects as much as we anticipate relief of the symptoms. Chemicals pervade our advanced modern world - yet most of us are ignorant of how they work.
The Same and Not the Same confronts some of the major ethical controversies in chemistry today, taking on such touchy subjects as the use of thalidomide, a tranquilizer once given to pregnant women which was later found to cause serious birth defects.
The book also explores the pressing environmental and ecological issues of our day: readers will appreciate Hoffmann's down-to-earth explanation of the chemistry behind the automobile exhaust that endangers our Earth.
In other essays, Hoffmann discusses trends of political correctness that have begun to filter into the ostensibly "objective" scientific discourses as much as they have in the humanities and social sciences. One chapter, for instance, presents his response to a female colleague who objected to the violent, warlike images used to describe the action of antibiotics.
Expertly weaving together examples from the worlds of art, literature, and philosophy, Hoffmann illustrates his unique dialectic about the creative activity of chemists. The Same and Not the Same is a beautifully crafted commentary on modern science, presenting the significant issues in chemistry for readers who may or may not have a scientific background.

Reviewed by Columbia University Press

Roald Hoffmann, John A. Newman Professor in the Physical Sciences at Cornell, Nobel laureate in chemistry, and published poet, encouraged SuperQuest students to blend the study of humanities with their scientific pursuits.

Roald Hoffmann has found some problems accompany the Nobel Prize. Hoffmann thinks the Nobel might distance a professor from students and discourage other honours. He's dismayed, he says, that the Nobel often signals the end to awards other than honorary doctorates. Though 1995 National Medal of Science winners-and Nobel laureates-Cech and Dehmelt may disagree, Hoffmann says: It's somewhat galling to those of us who have done new things since winning the Nobel to be counted out for other awards, such as the MacArthur [Foundation Fellowships], or so-called genius awards. I think these other groups have decided that they want the prestige for their award, and not have it come after the Nobel. Some well-meaning people may be interested in the Nobelist's name, not the person, he says, when asking him to endorse a program or serve on an editorial board, for example. He also finds that the Nobel Prize may act as a barrier between you and students. It puts you on a pedestal of sorts.

Related links

Roald Hoffmann - The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1981 from The Nobel Foundation
Roald Hoffmann's Home Page
Roald Hoffmann - 1981 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry
Roald Hoffmann and his The real imperatives for teaching science, to all during Ten Nobels for the Future Conference 1997
Scientific Publications of Roald Hoffmann
Hoffmann on Nanotechnology
Chemistry Nobelist Speaks at Havemeyer

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Last Updated: 21 October 2007