Roald Hoffmann Autobiography
to a happy Jewish family in dark days in Europe. On July 18, 1937 I
was born to Clara (née Rosen) and Hillel Safran in Zloczow, Poland.
This town, typical of the Pole of the Settlement, was part of
Austria-Hungary when my parents were born. It was Poland in my time
and is part of the Soviet Union now. I was named after Roald
Amundsen, my first Scandinavian connection. My father was a civil
engineer, educated at the Lvov (Lemberg) Polytechnic, my mother by
training a school teacher.
In 1939 the war began. Our part
of Poland was under Russian occupation from 1939 - 1941. Then in
1941 darkness descended, and the annihilation of Polish Jewry began.
We went to a ghetto, then a labor camp. My father smuggled my mother
and me out of the camp in early 1943, and for the remainder of the
war we were hidden by a good Ukrainian in the attic of a school
house in a nearby village. My father remained behind in the camp. He
organized a breakout attempt which was discovered. Hillel Safran was
killed by the Nazis and their helpers in June 1943. Most of the rest
of my family suffered a similar fate. My mother and I, and a handful
of relatives, survived. We were freed by the Red Army in June 1944.
At the end of 1944 we moved to Przemysl and then to Krakow, where I
finally went to school. My mother remarried, and Paul Hoffmann was a
kind and gentle father to me until his death, two months prior to
the Nobel Prize announcement.
In 1946 we left Poland for
Czechoslovakia. From there we moved to a displaced persons' camp,
Bindermichl, near Linz, in Austria. In 1947 we went on to another
camp in Wasseralfingen bei Aalen in Germany, then to München. On
Washington's Birthday 1949 we came to the United States.
learned English, my sixth language at this point, quite quickly.
After P.S. 93 and P.S. 16, Brooklyn, I went on to the great
Stuyvesant High School, one of New York's selective science schools.
Among my classmates were not only future scientists but lawyers,
historians, writers - a remarkable group of boys. In the summers I
went to Camp Juvenile in the Catskills, a formative experience.
Elinor, my younger sister, was born in 1954.
In 1955 I began
College as a premedical student. That summer and the next I
worked at the National Bureau of Standards in Washington with E.S.
Newman and R.E. Ferguson. The summer after I worked at Brookhaven
National Laboratory, with J.P. Cumming. These summers were important
because they introduced me to the joys of research, and kept me
going through some routine courses at Columbia. I did have some good
chemistry teachers, G.K. Fracnkel and R.S. Halford, and a superb
teaching assistant, R. Schneider. But I must say that the world that
opened up before me in my non science courses is what I remember
best from my Columbia days. I almost switched to art history.
In 1958 I began graduate work at Harvard. I intended to work with
W.E. Moffitt, a remarkable young theoretician, but he died in my
first year there. A young instructor, M.P. Gouterman, was one of the
few faculty members at Harvard who at that time was interested in
doing theoretical work, and I began research with him. In the summer
of 1959 I got a scholarship from P.O. Lowdin's Quantum Chemistry
Group at Uppsala to attend a Summer School. The school was held on
Lidingö:, an island outside of Stockholm. I met Eva Börjesson who
had a summer job as a receptionist at the school, and we were
married the following year.
I came back to Harvard, began
some abortive (and explosive) experimental work, and Eva and I took
off for a year to the Soviet Union. It was the second year of the
U.S.-U.S.S.R graduate student exchange. I worked for 9 months at
Moscow University with A.S. Davydov on excitor theory. Eva and I
lived in one of the wings, Zona E, of that great central building of
Moscow University. My proficiency in Russian and interest in Russian
culture date from that time.
On returning to the U.S. I
switched research advisors and started to work with W.N. Lipscomb,
who had just come to Harvard. Computers were just coming into use.
With Lipscomb's encouragement and ebullient guidance, L.L. Lohr and
I programmed what was eventually called the extended Hückel method.
I applied it to boron hydrides and polyhedral molecules in general.
One day I discovered that one could get the barrier to internal
rotation in ethane approximately right using this method. This was
the beginning of my work on organic molecules.
In 1962 I
received my doctorate, as the first Harvard Ph.D. of both Lipscomb
and Gouterman. Several academic jobs were available, and I was also
offered a Junior Fellowship in the Society of Fellows at Harvard. I
chose the Junior Fellowship. The three ensuing years in the Society
(1962 - 65), gave me the time to switch my interests from theory to
applied theory, specifically to organic chemistry. It was EJ. Corey
who taught me, by example, what was exciting in organic chemistry. I
began to look at all kinds of organic transformations, and so I was
prepared when in the Spring of 1964 R.B. Woodward asked me some
questions about what subsequently came to be called electrocyclic
reactions. That last year at Harvard was exciting. I was learning
organic chemistry at a great pace, and I had gained access to a
superior mind. R.B.
Woodward possessed clarity of thought, powers of concentration,
encyclopedic knowledge of chemistry, and an aesthetic sense
unparalleled in modern chemistry. He taught me, and I have taught
The 1962 - 65 period was creative in other ways as
well: Our two children, Hillel Jan and Ingrid Helena, were born to
Eva and me.
In 1965 I came to Cornell where I have been ever
since. A collegial department, a great university and a lovely
community have kept me happy. I am now the John A. Newman Professor
of Physical Science. I have received many of the honors of my
profession. I am especially proud that in addition to the American
Chemical Society's A.C. Cope Award in Organic Chemistry, which I
received jointly with R.B. Woodward in 1973, I have just been
selected for the Society's Award in Inorganic Chemistry in 1982, the
only person to receive these two awards in different subfields of
I have been asked to summarize my contributions
My research interests are in the electronic
structure of stable and unstable molecules, and of transition states
in reactions. I apply a variety of computational methods,
semiempirical and nonempirical, as well as qualitative arguments, to
problems of structure and reactivity of both organic and inorganic
molecules of medium size. My first major contribution was the
development of the extended Huckel method, a molecular orbital
scheme which allowed the calculation of the approximate sigma- and
pie- electronic structure of molecules, and which gave reasonable
predictions of molecular conformations and simple potential
surfaces. These calculations were instrumental in a renaissance of
interest in sigma electrons and their properties. My second major
contribution was a two-pronged exploration of the electronic
structure of transition states and intermediates in organic
reactions. In a fruitful collaboration R.B. Woodward and I applied
simple but powerful arguments of symmetry and bonding to the
analysis of concerted reactions. These considerations have been of
remarkable predictive value and have stimulated much productive
experimental work. In the second approach I have analyzed, with the
aid of various semiempirical methods, the molecular orbitals of most
types of reactive intermediates in organic chemistry-carbonium ions,
diradicals, methylenes, benzynes, etc.
Recently I and my
collaborators have been exploring the structure and reactivity of
inorganic and organometallic molecules. Approximate molecular
orbital calculations and symmetry-based arguments have been applied
by my research group to explore the basic structural features of
every kind of inorganic molecule, from complexes of small diatomics
to clusters containing several transition metal atoms. A
particularly useful theoretical device, the conceptual construction
of complex molecules from MLn fragments, has been used by
my research group to analyze cluster bonding and the equilibrium
geometries and conformational preferences of olefin and polyene
metal carbonyl complexes. A satisfactory understanding of the mode
of binding of essentially every ligand to a metal is now available,
and a beginning has been made toward understand ing organometallic
reactivity with the exploration of potential energy surfaces for
ethylene insertion, reductive elimination and alkyl migrative
insertion reactions. Several new structural types, such as the
triple-decker and porphyrin sandwiches, have been predicted, and
recently synthesized by others. On the more inorganic side, we have
systematically explored the geometries, polytopal rearrangement and
substitution site preferences of five, six, seven and eight
coordination, the factors that influence whether certain ligands
will bridge or not, the constraints of metal-metal bonding, and the
geometry of uranyl and other actinide complexes. I and my coworkers
are beginning work on extended solid state structures and the design
of novel conducting systems.
The technical description above
does not communicate what I think is my major contribution. I am a
teacher, and I am proud of it. At Cornell University I have taught
primarily undergraduates, and indeed almost every year since 1966
have taught first-year general chemistry. I have also taught
chemistry courses to non-scientists and graduate courses in bonding
theory and quantum mechanics. To the chemistry community at large,
to my fellow scientists, I have tried to teach "applied theoretical
chemistry": a special blend of computations stimulated by experiment
and coupled to the construction of general models - frameworks for
Prix Nobel 1981.
Added in 1992:
In the last decade I
and my coworkers have begun to look at the electronic structure of
extended systems in one-, two-, and three dimensions. Frontier
orbital arguments find an analogue in this work, in densities of
states and their partitioning. We have introduced an especially
useful tool, the COOP curve. This is the solid state analogue of an
overlap population, showing the way the bond strength depends on
electron count. My group has studied molecules as diverse as the
platinocyanides, Chevrel phases, transition metal carbides,
displacive transitions in NiAs, MnP and NiP, new metallic forms of
carbon, the making and breaking of bonds in the solid state and many
other systems. One focus of the solid state work has been on
surfaces, especially on the interaction of CH4 ,
acetylene and CO with specific metal faces. The group has been able
to carry through unique comparisons of inorganic and surface
reactions. And in a book "Solids and Surfaces. A Chemist's View of
Bonding in Extended Structures," I've tried to teach the chemical
community just how simple the concepts of solid state physics are.
And, a much harder task, to convince physicists that there is value
in chemical ways of thinking.
In 1986-88 I participated in
the production of a television course in introductory chemistry.
"The World of Chemistry" is a series of 26 half-hour episodes
developed at the University of Maryland and produced by Richard
Thomas. The project has been funded by Annenberg/the Corporation for
Public Broadcasting. I am the Presenter for the series which began
to be aired on PBS in 1990, and will also be seen in many other
My first real introduction to poetry came at
Columbia from Mark Van Doren, the great teacher and critic whose
influence was at its height in the 1950's. Through the years I
maintained an interest in literature, particularly German and
Russian literature. I began to write poetry in the mid-seventies,
but it was only in 1984 that a poem was first published. I own much
to a poetry group at Cornell that includes A.R. Ammons, Phyllis
Janowitz and David Burak, as well as to Maxine Kumin. My poems have
appeared in many magazines and have been translated into French,
Portuguese, Russian and Swedish. My first collection, "The Metamict
State", was published by the University of Central Florida Press in
1987, and is now in a second printing. A second collection, "Gaps
and Verges", was also published by the University of Central Florida
Press, in 1990. Articles on my poetry have appeared in
Literaturnaya Gazeta and Studies in American Jewish
Literature. I received the 1988 Pergamon Press Fellowship in
Literature at the Djerassi Foundation, Woodside, California, where I
was in residence for three years.
It seems obvious to me to
use words as best as I can in teaching myself and my coworkers. Some
call that research. Or to instruct others in what I've learned
myself, in ever-widening circles of audience. Some call that
teaching. The words are important in science, as much as we might
deny it, as much as we might claim that they just represent some
underlying material reality.
It seems equally obvious to me
that I should marshal words to try to write poetry. I write poetry
to penetrate the world around me, and to comprehend my reactions to
Some of the poems are about science, some not. I don't
stress the science poems over the others because science is only one
part of my life. Yet there are several reasons to welcome more
poetry that deals with science.
Around the time of the
Industrial Revolution - perhaps in reaction to it, perhaps for other
reasons - science and its language left poetry. Nature and the
personal became the main playground of the poet. That's too bad for
both scientists and poets, but it leaves lots of open ground for
those of us who can move between the two. If one can write poetry
about being a lumberjack, why not about being a scientist? It's
experience, a way of life. It's exciting.
The language of
science is a language under stress. Words are being made to describe
things that seem indescribable in words - equations, chemical
structures and so forth. Words do not, cannot mean all that they
stand for, yet they are all we have to describe experience. By being
a natural language under tension, the language of science is
inherently poetic. There is metaphor aplenty in science. Emotions
emerge shaped as states of matter and more interestingly, matter
acts out what goes on in the soul.
One thing is certainly
not true: that scientists have some greater insight into the
workings of nature than poets. Interestingly, I find that many
humanists deep down feel that scientists have such inner knowledge
that is barred to them. Perhaps we scientists do, but in such
carefully circumscribed pieces of the universe! Poetry soars, all
around the tangible, in deep dark, through a world we reveal and
It should be said that building a career in poetry is
much harder than in science. In the best chemical journal in
the world the acceptance rate for full articles is 65%, for
communications 35%. In a routine literary journal, far from
the best, the acceptance rate for poems is below 5%.
Writing, "the message that abandons", has become
increasingly important to me. I expect to publish four books for a
general or literary audience in the next few years. Science will
figure in these, but only as a part, a vital part, of the risky
enterprise of being human.