When he was a graduate student at Harvard, Roald Hoffmann was the only person in his year focusing on the demanding field of chemical physics. Yet when he wasn’t in the lab, Hoffman found unlikely refuges: a poetry shop on Mass. Ave. and the Brattle Theatre, where he immersed himself in foreign films.
A world-class chemist and the 1981 Nobel laureate in chemistry, Hoffmann, who received a Ph.D. in chemical physics from Harvard in 1962, is also the author of five books of poetry and three plays. This life-long love of self-expression through words goes back to his college days, when he enrolled in a poetry class.
“These experiences have meant a tremendous amount to me,” Hoffmann said. “Writing give me a way of expressing myself—different from science—that has more of an emotional currency to it.”
AN IMMIGRANT PATH
Long before he was a poet and a chemist, Hoffmann was a child in a Jewish family in Eastern Europe during World War II.
As a young boy, Hoffmann and his mother hid in the home of a friendly schoolteacher during the Nazi occupation. Fearing for their lives, the two fled to Czechoslovakia, then to Austria, and to Germany, finally arriving in New York City when he was 11, he said.
An immigrant in a foreign country, Hoffmann supplanted his humble beginnings with what he called “the typical path for immigrants to the United States”—after going to schools in Queens and Brooklyn, he attended New York City’s prestigious Stuyvesant High School and continued on to Columbia University.
Completing his graduation requirements in just three years, Hoffmann moved from the Big Apple to Cambridge.
Though he was initially unsure of his desire to become a chemist, Hoffmann developed close relationships with many professors. His research as a graduate student eventually laid the foundation for the Nobel Prize that he shared with Japanese chemist Kenichi Fukui, and featured the same eccentricities that made him stand out from the pack.
“He is a genius,” said Lawrence L. Lohr, who shared an office with Hoffmann when they were both graduate students at Harvard. “He learned things extremely quickly and had a great scientific imagination.”
But Hoffmann places the credit for his successes elsewhere entirely.
“Harvard was just wonderful as an intellectual community,” Hoffmann said. “I think what was important was that I wound up with the personal attention of three scientists by living as very much part of the Harvard community.”
FIRST, A CHEMIST
Though he immersed himself in various aspects of the Harvard culture while in graduate school, Hoffmann’s primary identity has always been as a chemist.
“He was very focused on his science,” said Clifford W. Hand, another chemistry graduate student at Harvard at the time. “I think he was a very, very good scientist and he earned everything he got because of that.”