Roald Hoffmann

Hoffmann, Roald (1937 -) is a Polish-born American chemist. He won the 1981 Nobel Prize in chemistry for applying the theories of quantum mechanics from the field of physics to explain chemical reactions and chemical compounds. Hoffmann shared the prize with the Japanese chemist Kenichi Fukui, who independently conducted similar research.

Hoffmann was born Roald Safran on July 18, 1937, in Zloczów, Poland (now Zolochev, Ukraine). His parents were Hillel Safran, a civil engineer, and Clara Rosen Safran, a schoolteacher. He had no siblings.

During World War II (1939–1945), the Safran family, who were Jewish, were sent first to a ghetto and then to a labor camp. In 1943, Hillel Safran arranged for his wife and son to escape the camp. He planned to follow them later but was caught and killed.

After their escape from the labor camp, Roald Safran and his mother lived hidden in the attic of a schoolhouse in a nearby village. A Ukrainian schoolteacher protected them and brought them food. The boy began his education through the teaching of his mother.

In June 1944, the Red Army of the Soviet Union defeated the German forces in the area and freed the prisoners from the camps. The Safrans came out of hiding and moved to Kraków, Poland, where Roald began to attend school. His mother met and later married Paul Hoffmann, whose first wife had been killed in the war.

After the war, from 1945 to 1949, Roald and his mother and stepfather lived in refugee camps in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Austria, and West Germany (the part of Germany occupied by the United States, the United Kingdom, and France after the war). In 1949, they were able to move to the United States. They settled in New York City.

By the time he arrived in New York City, Roald Safran already knew five languages: Polish, Hebrew, Yiddish, Ukrainian, and German. He quickly learned English and attended public schools in the Brooklyn section of the city. He graduated from Stuyvesant High School, a public high school that specialized in science. In 1955, he became a U.S. citizen and took his stepfather's last name.

Roald Hoffmann entered Columbia University in New York City in 1955. He planned to study medicine and become a doctor. He took courses in a variety of subject areas, including French and mathematics, and then changed his plans. He nearly majored in art history, a subject of great interest to him, but he encountered two excellent chemistry teachers who persuaded him to enter their field of study. During the summers of 1955 and 1956, Hoffmann studied the chemistry of cement and hydrocarbons at the National Bureau of Standards. In the summer of 1957, he conducted research in chemistry at the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island in New York. In 1958, Hoffmann received a bachelor of science degree in chemistry from Columbia.

After receiving his bachelor's degree, Hoffmann entered Harvard University for graduate study in chemistry. In 1959, he was awarded a fellowship to attend a summer program in quantum chemistry at the University of Uppsala in Sweden. There he met Eva Börjesson, whom he married in 1960. That year, Hoffmann also received a master's degree from Harvard. Hoffmann and his wife then spent a year in the Soviet Union, where Hoffmann was an exchange student at the University of Moscow. They later had two children: a son, Hillel Jan, and a daughter, Ingrid Helena.

Returning to the United States in 1961, Hoffmann began to study theoretical chemistry under William Nunn Lipscomb, Jr., a chemistry professor who would go on to win the 1976 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his theories of chemical bonding in boron compounds. Hoffmann made early use of computers to help solve problems in organic chemistry, the study of chemical substances that contain carbon-to-carbon bonds. He described chemical processes in terms of the clouds of electrons in the atoms involved. Applying an existing principle called the Hückel rule —which identifies the number of electrons in orbiting clouds around a given molecule—Hoffmann used computer programs to calculate the electronic structure of boron hydrides and polyhedral molecules. Hoffmann received a Ph.D. degree in theoretical chemistry from Harvard in 1962.

After earning his doctoral degree, Hoffmann received a three-year fellowship to continue research in applied theoretical chemistry at Harvard. In 1964, he began to work with the distinguished organic chemist Robert Burns Woodward. Woodward would win the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1965 for his contributions to organic synthesis, the chemical duplication of carbon-based compounds.

Hoffmann left Harvard in 1965 to accept a position as associate professor of chemistry at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. He continued his work with Woodward, however. In 1965, Woodward asked for Hoffmann's help after Woodward found that a certain chemical reaction did not occur in the expected manner during an attempt to synthesize (create with chemicals) vitamin B12. Woodward and Hoffmann used quantum mechanics to develop rules that would enable scientists to predict whether a particular combination of chemicals will result in a reaction. Quantum mechanics is a field of physics that describes the structure of the atom and the motion of atomic particles. The Woodward-Hoffmann rules, as they became known, describe certain mathematical properties of the electron clouds that make up the outer parts of atoms. Hoffmann and Woodward published the results of their research in the book The Conservation of Orbital Symmetry (1970). Woodward died in 1979.

Hoffmann was promoted to full professor at Cornell in 1968. From 1974 to 1996. he was John A. Newman Professor of Physical Sciences. Hoffmann extended his work to inorganic molecules (substances that do not contain carbon-to-carbon bonds) and organometallics (organic molecules that include metal atoms). He also published the books Solids and Surfaces: A Chemist's View of Bonding in Extended Structures (1988) and Chemistry Imagined: Reflections on Science (1993). The latter book, co-written with artist Vivian Torrence, explores the relationship between science and art.

During the course of his scientific career, Hoffmann received many awards and honors in addition to the Nobel Prize. The American Chemical Society gave him the Pure Chemistry Award (1969), the Arthur C. Cope Award (with Woodward, 1973), the Linus Pauling Award (1974), the Nichols Medal (1981), the Award for Distinguished Service in the Advancement of Inorganic Chemistry (1982), and the Priestly Medal (1990). Hoffmann received the Award of the International Academy of Quantum Molecular Sciences in 1970. He was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1972.

Hoffmann has maintained an interest in the liberal arts since his college days. He began to write poetry in the mid-1970's and has since published several collections of his poems. These volumes include The Metamict State (1987), Gaps and Verges (1990), The Same and Not the Same (1995), and Memory Effects (1998).

Hoffmann has long regarded teaching at all levels as important. He was the presenter and narrator for the American television series “The World of Chemistry,” first broadcast in the United States in 1990 on the Public Broadcasting System (PBS).

In an unusual step for a professional scientist, Hoffmann in 1996 left his scientific position at Cornell to take a literary professorship at the university, becoming Frank M. T. Rhodes Professor of Humane Letters. In 1997, he published Old Wine, New Flasks: Reflections on Science and Jewish Tradition.