Roald Hoffmann

Born: July 18, 1937 | Zloczow, PL
Portrait of Roald Hoffmann

credit: Michael Grace-Martin

Roald Hoffmann was born Roald Safran in Złoczów, Poland, in 1937. When the Nazi Wehrmacht reached Złoczów in 1941, Roald’s family went into hiding, then into a labor camp. His father bribed the guards to allow Roald, his mother, and several other family members to leave, but was himself executed soon after. Roald’s family spent the remainder of the war in hiding. The family then moved to Krakow, Roald’s mother remarried, and they acquired the surname Hoffmann from bought identity papers they used to emigrate to Prague and, eventually, to the United States. After graduating from Stuyvesant High School and completing his bachelor’s degree at the Columbia University, Hoffmann went to Harvard University for a graduate program in chemical physics, planning to work with William E. Moffitt. Moffitt’s death led Hoffmann to Martin Gouterman, then to William Lipscomb. His PhD in theoretical chemistry focused on boron hydrides. During a Junior Fellowship at Harvard, he applied the extended Hückel method he had developed for the boron hydride calculations to organic molecules. In 1965, Hoffmann took up a faculty position at Cornell University. He describes the role of computers in his work, both at Harvard and at Cornell, his approach to establishing and leading a research group, his interactions with colleagues, his collaborations with R. B. Woodward, and the experience and impact of winning the Nobel Prize. He also discusses his writing projects, which include poetry, plays—including Oxygen, which he cowrote with Carl Djerassi—and popular works exploring science and religion. Throughout the discussion, Hoffmann returns to the themes of building bridges between branches of chemistry, between chemistry and physics, between science and the humanities, and between academia and the public.

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0925
No. of pages: 121
Minutes: 510

Interview Sessions

David J. Caruso and Carsten Reinhardt
16 and 17 October 2014 and 21 March 2015
Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, and Chemical Heritage Foundation, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Abstract of Interview

Roald Hoffmann was born Roald Safran in Złoczów, Poland, in 1937. His father, Hilel Safran, was a civil engineer and his mother trained as teacher. Between 1939 and 1941, Złoczów was under Soviet occupation; when the Nazi Wehrmacht reached Złoczów in 1941, they rounded up the Jews of the town and many men and boys were killed. Roald’s family went into hiding, then into a labor camp. His father bribed the guards to allow Roald, his mother, and several other family members to leave, but was himself executed soon after for leading a plot to break additional prisoners out of the camp. Roald’s family spent the remainder of the war in hiding. At the end of the war, the family moved to Krakow, Roald’s mother remarried, and they acquired the surname Hoffmann from bought identity papers they used to emigrate to Prague and, eventually, to the United States.

After graduating from Stuyvesant High School and exploring interests in the humanities and in chemistry as an undergraduate at Columbia University, Hoffmann went to Harvard University for a graduate program in chemical physics, planning to work with William E. Moffitt. Moffitt’s death led Hoffmann to Martin Gouterman, then to William Lipscomb. In graduate school, Hoffmann continued to pursue a variety of academic interests, attending a summer school in Sweden where he met the woman he would marry, and spending a year in the Soviet Union on a government-sponsored exchange program. Upon his return, he settled into theoretical chemistry work focused on boron hydrides with Lipscomb and completed his PhD within a year.

Offered assistant professorships at Cornell and at several western universities, Hoffmann instead accepted a Junior Fellowship at Harvard, which afforded him three years to pursue research without any teaching responsibilities. He decided to apply the extended Hückel method he had developed for the boron hydride calculations to organic molecules. R. B. Woodward brought the frontier orbital explanation for the electrocyclic reaction to Hoffmann’s attention. Hoffmann describes how the ensuing work on orbital symmetry brought together theoretical chemistry and organic chemistry, and spurred a significant change in the chemical community’s perception of chemical reactivity.

In 1965, Hoffmann took up a faculty position at Cornell University. He describes the role of computers in his work, both at Harvard and at Cornell, and the importance of the Ithaca community, which encourages socialization across departments and disciplines. The remainder of the interview focuses on Hoffmann’s approach to establishing and leading a research group, his interactions with colleagues, his second period of collaboration with R.B. Woodward, and the experience and impact of winning the Nobel Prize. He also discusses his writing projects, which include poetry, plays—including Oxygen, which he cowrote with Carl Djerassi—and popular works exploring science and religion. Throughout the discussion, Hoffmann returns to the themes of building bridges between branches of chemistry, between chemistry and physics, between science and the humanities, and between academia and the public.

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1958 Columbia University BA Chemistry
1960 Harvard University MS Physics
1960 Harvard University PhD Chemical physics

Professional Experience

Harvard University

1962 to 1965
Junior Fellow, Society of Fellows

Cornell University

1965 to 1968
Associate Professor, Chemistry
1968 to 1974
Professor, Chemistry
1974 to 1996
John A. Newman Professor, Physical Sciences
1996 to 2008
Frank H.T. Rhodes Professor of Humane Letters
2008
Frank H.T. Rhodes Professor of Humane Letters Emeritus

Honors

Year(s) Award
1969

American Chemical Society Award, Alpha Chi Sigma

1969

Fresenius Award, Phi Lambda Upsilon

1969

Harrison Howe Award, American Chemical Society, Rochester Section

1970

Award of the International Academy of Quantum Molecular Sciences

1971

Member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences

1972

Member, National Academy of Sciences

1973

Inaugural Recipient of the Arthur C. Cope Award in Organic Chemistry, American Chemical Society (co-recipient)

1974

Linus Pauling Award

1978

Member, International Academy of Quantum Molecular Sciences

1981

Nichols Medal of the New York Section of the American Chemical Society

1981

Nobel Prize in Chemistry

1982

ACS Award in Inorganic Chemistry

1983

National Medalof Science

1983

Foreign Fellow of the Indian National Science Academy

1984

Foreign Member of the Royal Society

1984

Member, American Philosophical Society

1985

Foreign Member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

1986

Dickinson College Award

1986

National Academy of Sciences Award in Chemical Sciences

1988

Foreign Member of the Societas Scientarum Fennica

1988

Foreign Member of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR

1990

Priestley Medal

1991

N.N. Semenov Gold Medal, Academy of Sciences of the USSR

1994

Centennial Medal of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences of Harvard University

1996

Pimentel Award in Chemical Education, American Chemical Society

1997

Inaugural Elizabeth A. Wood Science Writing Award, American Crystallographic Association

1998

Jawaharlal Nehru Birth Centenary Award of India

1998

Corresponding Member, Nordrhein-Westfälische Academy of Sciences

1999

Honorary Member of the German Chemical Society

2000

Member, Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher Leopoldina

2002

Honorary Member of the Chemical Society of Japan

2006

Gold Medal of the American Institute of Chemists

2010

Member, Mexican Academy of Sciences

2018

Member, Real Academia de Ciencias

Table of Contents

Chronology
i
Abstract
iii
Interviewer Bios
iii
About this Transcript
iv
Childhood During and After World War II
1

Born Roald Safran. Polish Jewish family background. Story of his name. Jewish community in Złoczów. Parents’ educations. Mother’s experiences during World War I. Life under Soviet occupation; atrocities against Ukrainian population of Złoczów. Nazi invasion; roundup of the Jewish population. Lackie labor camp; father’s role in the resistance. Hiding in village schoolhouse; father’s execution. Release from hiding in 1944; move to Krakow. Catholic schooling. Mother’s remarriage. Becoming Hoffmann. Displaced persons camp in Austria. First exposure to chemistry. Move to Munich. Attitudes about Germany and towards Ukrainians. Departure for the US. Later travels to Germany.

In the United States
15

Settling in New York City. Learning English. Stuyvesant High School. Chemistry sets and home laboratory. Plans to do medical research. Westinghouse Science Talent Search. Summer jobs at National Bureau of Standards and National Institutes of Health. Immigrants and assimilation; effects of wartime experiences. High school science classes. Columbia University. Summer job at Brookhaven National Laboratory. First papers published. Interest in the humanities. Choosing chemistry as profession. Introduction to chemical physics.

Harvard University
28

Plan to work with William E. Moffit. E. Bright Wilson’s program in chemical physics. Moffitt’s death; work with Martin Gouterman. Non-chemistry courses. Exchange with Soviet Union. Switch from Gouterman to William Lipscomb. Work on molecular orbital calculation of cubane. Summer school in Sweden; meets wife. Computers in chemistry. Lipscomb group; theoretical work on boron hydrides. Wilson’s critique of Hoffmann’s physical chemistry seminar. George Kistiakowsky. Applying for jobs; Junior Fellowship at Harvard. Offer from Cornell. Semi-empirical vs. ab initio methods. Frontier orbital symmetry work with Woodward. Birth of children. Move to Cornell,

Early Work on Orbital Symmetry
47

Significance of orbital symmetry for chemistry. Rediscovery of Hückel’s rules. Change in graphical representation of molecules. Importance of theories being portable and productive. Jerry Berson. Bill Doering. Woodward’s role. Precocity in chemistry. Working with Woodward: transformation from ‘helping hand’ to collaborator. E.J. Corey. Japanese theoretical community. Kenichi Fukui. Correlation diagrams. Lack of acceptance by theoretical community in the US; losing NSF funding. Nitroxyl free radicals. Representations of molecules. Dispute with E.J. Corey

Establishing a Research Group and Forging Connections
63

Computers in chemistry; facilities at Harvard and Cornell. Offers from Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and later Harvard; tenure. Collegiality at Cornell; connections with humanities. Establishing a research group. US educational system contrasted with European. Group meetings. Connections among different branches of chemistry. Singlet fission. Diradicals. Transition from organic to inorganic; square-planar carbon. Bridging solid-state chemistry and solid-state physics. High-pressure chemistry.

R. B. Woodward and the Nobel Prize
77

Woodward’s death. Working with Woodward in the 1960s and late 1970s; organic conductors; graphene; Woodward’s drawings. Nobel Prize nomination. Winning the Nobel. Fukui. Significance and impact of the Nobel. Resisting move into management of science.

Nobel Prize, Writing, Influences
89

Nobel Prize myths and realities. Poetry; teachers and influences. Popular science writing. Social connections in Ithaca. Reaction of colleagues to writing projects. Outreach to physics and biology. Peter Debye, Hans Bethe, and Henri Sack. Collaboration with Neil Ashcroft. Importance of experimental science for theoretical work; Lipscomb, Woodward and Gouterman. Orbital symmetry work. Chemists vs. physicists.

Building Bridges
107

Building bridges Science cabarets. PBS World of Chemistry. Rhodes professorship. Old Wine, New Flasks and being Jewish in America. Carl Djerassi; Oxygen. The art of science; illustrations and images.

About the Interviewer

David J. Caruso

David J. Caruso earned a BA in the history of science, medicine, and technology from Johns Hopkins University in 2001 and a PhD in science and technology studies from Cornell University in 2008. Caruso is the director of the Center for Oral History at the Science History Institute, president of Oral History in the Mid-Atlantic Region, and editor for the Oral History Review. In addition to overseeing all oral history research at the Science History Institute, he also holds an annual training institute that focuses on conducting interviews with scientists and engineers, he consults on various oral history projects, like at the San Diego Technology Archives, and is adjunct faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, teaching courses on the history of military medicine and technology and on oral history.  His current research interests are the discipline formation of biomedical science in 20th-century America and the organizational structures that have contributed to such formation.

Carsten Reinhardt

Carsten Reinhardt served as the Science History Institute’s president from 2013 to 2016 (then the Chemical Heritage Foundation). He is currently a professor of the history of science at Bielefeld University, Germany. Reinhardt has extensively researched and published on the impact of chemistry on society through topics including the history of industrial research, the emergence of instrumentation, and chemistry’s links to physics, biology, medicine, and technology. Reinhardt has received many awards and fellowships, including being named a fellow at the Max Planck Institute and a visiting professor in the Department of Philosophy, École Normale Supérieure, Paris. Reinhardt was an Edelstein Fellow at the Institute in 1998–1999 and at Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1994.