FINALIST YEAR: 1955
HIS FINALIST PROJECT: Measuring the movement of cosmic ray particles
WHAT LED TO THE PROJECT: Roald Hoffmann learned to observe from an early age. Born Jewish in Poland in 1937, he spent long days of his childhood hiding from the Nazis in an attic near the border of the Soviet Union. He noted the changing light, the seasons and other children playing through a small portal to the outside world. "I'm a watcher," he says. "I look at how things interact. It interests me."
After he immigrated with his mother and stepfather to New York City in 1949—his father had died in a Nazi labor camp—this curiosity helped him gain admission to the city's selective Stuyvesant High School only a few years after he learned English. While he was there, a New York University physics professor gave him photographic plates that contained the tracks of cosmic ray particles. Hoffmann undertook various measurements and attempted to identify the elementary particles created when the cosmic rays decayed, based on the tracks they left. He wrote up the results. Although "it was not a great piece of work," he says, the topic was hot and the paper earned Hoffmann a finalist spot in the 1955 Westinghouse Science Talent Search.
THE EFFECT ON HIS CAREER: Subsequent newspaper stories and the trip to Washington, D.C., dazzled this young Holocaust survivor. "It was a very formative kind of experience overall," he says. But it wasn't the only formative experience Hoffmann was having. Soon afterward, he enrolled at Columbia University, where the heady Great Books courses and poetry classes (taught by Pulitzer Prize winning poet Mark Van Doren) left him torn about what to do with his life.
His parents had ideas. "I was under a lot of pressure to become a doctor—a real doctor!" Hoffmann says. But he didn't want to practice medicine. So he looked for a compromise. "I had enough courage to tell my parents I wasn't going to be a doctor, but not enough courage to tell them I wanted to go into the history of art. So I went to graduate school in chemistry," he says. "I fell into it, but I love it."
Chemistry returned his affection. He earned his PhD at Harvard while working under future Nobel laureate William N. Lipscomb, Jr. He eventually landed at Cornell, where his main work covered the structure and reactivity of both organic (those containing carbon) and inorganic molecules. Organic chemistry's Woodward–Hoffmann rules (which Hoffmann developed with Robert Burns Woodward) predict the positions of atoms within certain kinds of molecules. He and Kenichi Fukui shared the 1981 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their independent work on the course of chemical reactions.
WHAT HE'S DOING NOW: Hoffmann still teaches in the Cornell chemistry department, but despite his distinguished science career, he's never forgotten his love of the humanities. Shortly before winning the Nobel, he began to write poetry in earnest—sometimes about science, sometimes about his experiences as a child during the war, and often just about things he observed. "Maybe there's something of the scientist in that watching," he says. "But then you have to endow it with some emotional currency, so it means something to a reader."
This is rarely an easy process. When it comes to poetry, "some of my scientific colleagues say 'If I only had the time I could do it.' They don't know how difficult it is. My poems go through many more drafts than my science articles."
This labor has paid off. In his second career, Hoffmann has published five books of his work (including The Metamict State, and Gaps and Verges, both from the University of Central Florida Press), and individual poems in The Paris Review and The Kenyon Review. For this interview, he called from the lone phone at an artist's colony in California, where he'd just spent the morning writing a whimsical poem ("of no importance whatsoever") in which the narrator finds himself talking with a brain.
Despite having rekindled this other love, Hoffmann has no regrets about choosing chemistry as a young man. Indeed, seeing other artists at the colony reminds him that "you can make a living as a chemist rather than as a poet."