Holocaust Survivor, Nobel Prize-Winning Scientist ... and Playwright
He survived a Nazi labour camp, stumbled into chemistry and won a Nobel Prize. Then Roald Hoffmann returned to his first love: literature.
FOR A HANDFUL of the world’s best scientists — those suffering from nobelomania– October can be a tense month. That’s when, annually and over a three-day period, a small number are named as the exalted masters of their discipline — winners of the three science Nobel Prizes. First, Physics is announced, then Chemistry, and lastly, Physiology or Medicine.
Nobels carry mystique and global acclaim, and people the world over await the announcements with anticipation. But some do so with dread, for they are obsessed by the idea that they are eminently worthy but are, again and again, overlooked.
It’s a peculiar condition that Roald Hoffmann, an emeritus professor at Cornell University, has seen more times than he’d care to admit.
“They listen carefully on that day, and some of them call friends and say ‘Another year has passed and they made a mistake’. Most of them don’t dare talk to anyone, but it just breeds internally, and you can see it. They start campaigns, some of them. It’s terrible.”
Hoffmann — who actually did win a Nobel Prize, in his case, in chemistry — never suffered from nobelomania. In fact, he wasn’t even sure he wanted to be a scientist: it was only after completing a Bachelor of Arts at Columbia, then a Master of Arts at Harvard, that he decided to launch into a doctorate in the sciences.
He has a soft, reassuring voice that lingers over words as if sculpting them anew, dwelling on the moment of an idea or a memory, his lively brown eyes gazing aside, and occasionally sneaking a look in your direction to emphasise a point. He listens carefully, seemingly sizing you up as you ask a question, before looking away to answer. His accent is pure New Yorker, which is where he found himself on a cold February day in 1949, an 11-year-old refugee from the Third Reich.
By then, he had already experienced much. He and his family — originally from Złoczów, in what used to be Poland — had been herded into a Jewish ghetto and then a Nazi labour camp. His father, a civil engineer named Hillel Safran, managed to smuggle his family out of the labour camp in early 1943, but decided to stay behind. With the help of a neighbouring Ukrainian family, Hoffmann hid in the attic of a schoolhouse near the camp, along with two uncles, an aunt and his mother — a former teacher — for the rest of World War II.
Hoffmann didn’t know at the time, but soon after his escape, his father organised a break-out attempt from the labour camp, was discovered, and killed. “Most of the rest of my family suffered a similar fate,” he recalled. “My mother and I, and a handful of relatives, survived. We were freed by the Red Army in June 1944.”
His mother remarried, he gained a new surname and attended school again; first in Poland, then in Czechoslovakia, Austria and eventually at a displaced persons’ camp in Germany. Here they gained passage to Brooklyn, where he got a place at the prestigious Stuyvesant High School, a New York City public school specialising in maths and science. He became a U.S. citizen the year he graduated, and won a scholarship to the city’s Columbia University.
His parents were sure he would study medicine. “It was at this point that I got up enough courage to tell my parents I didn’t want to become a ‘real’ doctor,” he said. He chose chemistry “almost by accident. I think initially I took some chemistry courses for my medical orientation, but it was summer research jobs that really did it. It introduces you to the family structure of scientific research … you see the intensity of people trying to discover things.
“You hear graduate students and post-docs say ‘this is a bad paper’ or ‘this is an uninteresting paper’ — something you’d never hear in a formal setting! And you see the struggle [of discovery]. It’s fun. It’s where I’ve been ever since, and I don’t regret it.”
He was also “being seduced by the humanities” and secretly wished he could study art history. But his parents would think he was crazy. “Typical immigrant story. There are pressures from the family, from society.” Chemistry, at least, was a solid career.
Nevertheless, he also took courses in the arts at Columbia, and was inspired to write by Mark Van Doren, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and critic who also penned columns for the leftist weekly, The Nation. Van Doren’s students had included Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, and it was Van Doren’s son, Charles, who briefly achieved infamy as the winner of the rigged game show, Twenty-One (dramatised in the 1994 film Quiz Show).
BUT SCIENCE BECKONED, and Hoffmann was offered an independent post-doctorate at Harvard in 1964. There he collaborated with the Robert Burns Woodward, a towering figure in organic chemistry. Hoffmann was 27 and had only been working with Woodward for a year when the organic chemist took out the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on the synthesis of complex natural products such as quinine, cholesterol and cortisone.
So it was, with a little awe and a lot of luck, that Hoffmann found himself working as a front-line chemical theorist with a giant of the field. And it wasn’t long before the two made a theoretical breakthrough that would have a dramatic impact on chemistry.
Woodward had been trying to synthesise one of the most complex natural products: Vitamin B12. It ultimately took an international collaboration of more than 100 researchers to crack the problem, and almost a hundred steps. The molecule was so complex, the complete work was not published until 1973.
During the B12 synthesis work, Woodward struck on an idea for predicting how chemicals might behave, based on the symmetry properties of molecular orbitals — mathematical functions describing the wave-like behaviour of an electron orbiting atoms in a given molecule. Woodward asked Hoffmann — then a bright and upcoming young theorist — to perform the calculations that might verify or discount his ideas.
It was not an easy task; it required an understanding of chemistry at the quantum level, with which Hoffmann had been tinkering since 1963. Hoffmann began by adapting Hückel molecular orbital theory to the problem; proposed in 1930 by German physicist Erich Hückel, it’s a simple yet powerful way to determine the energies of molecular orbitals.
Hoffmann developed an extension of the Hückel method, which had previously been restricted to certain electrons, so that it was possible to calculate the orbitals of all electrons in a chemical reaction, and this he applied to the B12 problem.
It quickly became clear that the approach, which could predict the reaction rates between two reactants, was a powerful new quantum chemistry method. With it, Woodward and Hoffmann were able to further develop a set of rules for predicting the behaviour of chemical reactions in many conditions, and these became known as the Woodward-Hoffmann stereo-selection rules.
“We created, essentially, a graphic code for electrons, grafted on almost seamlessly to a graphic code already in the heads of organic and inorganic chemists for the shapes of molecules,” Hoffmann said. “Often, electrons give the reason for the shape — why molecules are bent or linear — but they also control other things, such as reactivity. We added an electronic dimension to 3D pictures of molecules.
It was obvious their work would have a major effect on the field, and murmurs of a Nobel began. “There was no question that our work was in the category that would be recognised by a Nobel Prize — that was evident within two or three years after we did it,” Hoffmann admited.
In the sciences, the winners of a Nobel are rarely a complete surprise — they’re often given to those who have made great leaps forward. Even then, it can take a long time for recognition to materialise. The theory that led to Woodward-Hoffmann rules were first proposed by the duo in 1965, and further refined over following year; but it was not until 1981 that their work was recognised with an 18-carat gold medallion.
It came too late for Woodward, who had died two years earlier. “We would have shared it, and it would have been his second,” Hoffmann mused. Instead, Hoffmann shared the prize with Kenichi Fukui, the first Japanese chemist to receive a Nobel. Fukui had independently developed a similar set of ideas, but based on the framework of a different model, known as the frontier molecular orbital theory.
THE WINE LIST at the Cornelia Street Café was excellent, and the desserts merited their own menu. When I visited this homely café in New York’s Greenwich Village, just blocks from Washington Square Park, what surprised me was that despite its outsized reputation as one of the best jazz haunts in the world, the prices were moderate.
Started by three artists in 1977, the downstairs bar hosted poetry readings and musical acts, from singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega to Monty Python. Sadly, it closed on New Year’s Day 2019, a victim of rising rents. But it was the place where, once a month for more than a decade, Hoffmann would stage his popular “Entertaining Science” cabaret series.
The week I visited, a discussion had featured Hoffmann and his long-time friend Carl Djerassi, the Austrian-born chemist turned novelist and playwright who was best known as the creator of the birth-control pill.
They were discussing Djerassi’s new play, Taboos, about a lesbian couple and an infertile Christian couple who each want a child — and the unexpected, and often messy, results that arise when emotions and science collide. There were readings from the play followed by a lively discussion of science in theatre with Djerassi and the director and producer of the play, moderated by Hoffmann. What makes one a parent: love, genetics or giving birth?
It was after winning the Nobel in 1981 that Hoffmann found himself powerfully drawn back again to his first love, the arts, and he began writing anew. “It felt as if there was something missing,” he said. “You know, something happens to men when they turn 40,” a mischievous grin crossing his face. “They either run off with their secretaries, or they start writing poetry.”
Hoffmann first book-length collection of poetry, The Metamict State, appeared in 1987. Then came Gaps and Verges in 1990, Memory Effects in 1999, Soliton in 2002. He also wrote about the philosophy of chemistry from his experience as a scientist, The Same and Not the Same, and a witty discussion of science and Judaism “dealing with the mundane and the eternal” in Old Wine, New Flasks; Reflections on Science and Jewish Tradition.
He wrote his first play, Oxygen, with Djerassi in 2001 and his second play, Should’ve, in 2006 followed by Something That Belongs to You in 2009. All three interweave science into social questions of history, memory and ethics, with the latter touching on guilt and the Holocaust.
As we talk about his plays, I see similarities in how Hoffmann explored the frontiers of chemistry and how he writes poetry.
“Yes,” he agreed. “It has to do with the universal, and the particular. Poetry gets at the universal from looking at the particular — you look at that flower and it’s that particular flower. But you can see the universe in that flower.
“Chemistry to me is actually much closer to poetry. I might be able to understand the universe by studying that particular molecule. If I understand it, and if I keep my mind open about the relationship of that molecule to all other molecules, by the time I do 100 molecules, I’ll have the universe.”
BEING A HOLOCAUST survivor never leaves you. In 2006, Hoffmann and some of the descendants of his family — from Australia, Brazil and Israel — returned to his birthplace, now known as Zolochiv in Ukraine, to dedicate a memorial to his father and other family members lost during the Holocaust.
Later, they climbed into the school attic where he had spent so many months hiding for dear life. It was sad and painful experience, but that attic has never been far from hist memory.
“I watched my son, Hillel, and my sister, Elinor, climb into the attic,” he wrote after the visit. “My son has a son, he’s five years old — exactly the age I was when we went into that attic.”
Can he forgive what happened, I asked? Those who wrought the suffering, the fear, the killing. “Forgiveness comes from the soul, it is individual. I can only speak for myself. I can forgive,” he says. And the actions of a few can redeem one’s faith in humanity, he adds; the Greek Catholic brothers who helped his family, the Ukrainian teacher who hid them in the dark attic and then a storeroom of a schoolhouse for 15 months.
And then, there’s the irony. “The storeroom where we were hidden — where we dug a space under the floorboards to sit in the worst times — is now a classroom with Mendeleyev’s periodic table on the wall,” he recalled. “A chemistry classroom."
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