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James T. Grady-James H. Stack Award For Interpreting Chemistry For The Public

Recipients are honored for contributions of major significance to chemistry

by Arlene Goldberg-Gist
February 16, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 7

Credit: Courtesy of Roald Hoffmann
Credit: Courtesy of Roald Hoffmann

Sponsored by ACS

Cabaret, poetry, plays, TV programs, philosophy. These words and the images they inspire are not what normally come to mind when speaking about a Nobel Prize-winning scientist in any field. When speaking of Roald Hoffmann, however, people cannot dismiss these words and still portray the person that he is.

As an 11-year-old arriving in the U.S. after having survived the Nazi occupation of his native Poland, Hoffmann embraced life with the few surviving members of his family. Perhaps the war induced him to work too hard to please people, he says, but if so, the outcome has been very positive.

Commenting on having won the award for interpreting chemistry for the public, Hoffmann says he has "tried to do just this. Not to attract people to our profession, but perhaps for three reasons." First, he says, "ignorance of science is an alienating process, in the psychological sense—we do not understand what science has wrought around us, and we fear what we do not understand. Second, the workings of a democratic society, our approximations of it, require some knowledge of science for the responsible citizen. And third, I think chemistry is just plain fun. I would like to tell people the stories of chemistry."

Hoffmann says he got to chemistry "sideways, so to speak." Parental pressure nudged him toward premed. He claims not to have had the courage to go into the humanities—a world that opened up to him as an undergraduate at Columbia University. By 1961, something had clicked, and he knew that chemistry was his science.

Having shared the 1981 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Hoffmann's accomplishments as a chemist are indisputable. But in describing Hoffmann's ability to communicate chemistry to the public, Ben Patrusky, executive director of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, calls Hoffmann "a troubadour of science in general, and chemistry in particular."

It's hard to imagine a more prolific writer than Hoffmann. He is the author of two science books and more than 500 journal articles. But Hoffmann began writing poetry in the 1970s, "some about science, some not," he says in his online Nobel Prize autobiography. His poems have been published in five books and many magazines and have been translated into 10 languages. Other books include a unique collaboration between Hoffmann and artist Vivian Torrence, titled "Chemistry Imagined: Reflections on Science," published by the Smithsonian Institution Press. The back cover of "The Same and Not the Same" (C&EN, Dec. 11, 1995, page 61), published by Columbia University Press, proclaims, "Hoffmann does for chemistry what Stephen Hawking did for cosmology; he illuminates a science that for many has been shrouded in mystery." In 1997, W. H. Freeman published "Old Wine, New Flasks: Reflections on Science and Jewish Tradition," which Hoffmann wrote with Shira Leibowitz Schmidt.

"The World of Chemistry," a public television course in introductory chemistry with 26 half-hour episodes hosted by Hoffmann, aired in the 1990s. Take a breath, because there is more: "Oxygen," a play by Carl Djerassi and Hoffmann, premiered in California in 2001; a second play by Hoffmann, "Should've," was produced in Canada and Italy in 2007. Also in this decade, as both sides of the brain behind a monthly evening of "Entertaining Science" cabaret at the Cornelia Street Café in New York City, Hoffmann teamed up with the café's owner to reach an even wider audience (C&EN, May 26, 2003, page 32).

Currently the Frank H. T. Rhodes Professor Emeritus of Humane Letters in Cornell University's department of chemistry and chemical biology, Hoffmann, 71, considers his major contribution to be what he conveys as a teacher. A colleague of Hoffmann's says, "The breadth of his educational efforts is extraordinary. Hoffmann is also an important role model for the new generation of chemists, showing them explicitly that they need not be afraid to speak to the world of their wonderful science."

Indeed, Hoffmann said at an ACS symposium for his 70th birthday, "I think I've been a good teacher because I've allowed the emotional into what passes between me and my students. So I've been able to communicate to students that the subject is ever new to me, that I care that they learn, and that I care about them as human beings."

Hoffmann will present the award address during the fall ACS national meeting in Washington, D.C.



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