Roald Hoffmann

Prof. Roald Hoffmann

Cornell University, Department of Chemistry, Baker Laboratory 
Prof. Kenichi Fukui  


Roald Hoffmann was born in 1937 in Złoczów, Poland. Having survived the war, he came to the U. S. in 1949, and studied chemistry at Columbia and Harvard Universities (Ph.D. 1962). Since 1965 he is at Cornell University, now as the Frank H. T. Rhodes Professor of Humane Letters. He has received many of the honors of his profession, including the 1981 Nobel Prize in Chemistry (shared with Kenichi Fukui).

"Applied theoretical chemistry" is the way Roald Hoffmann likes to characterize the particular blend of computations stimulated by experiment and the construction of generalized models, of frameworks for understanding, that is his contribution to chemistry.

Dr. Hoffmann is also a writer of essays, non-fiction, poems and plays. Two of his poetry collections, The Metamict State (1987) and Gaps and Verges (1990), have been published by the University Presses of Florida; Memory Effects, was published in 1999 by the Calhoun Press of Columbia College, Chicago. At the end of 2002 two poetry collections were published by Roald Hoffmann, Soliton, by Truman State University Press, and a volume of selected poems translated into Spanish, “Catalísta.”

In 1993 the Smithsonian Institution Press published Chemistry Imagined. A unique art/science/literature collaboration of Roald Hoffmann with artist Vivian Torrence, translated into Chinese and Spanish, Chemistry Imagined reveals the creative and humanistic sparks of the molecular science. In 1995, Columbia University Press published The Same and Not the Same, a thoughtful account of the dualities that lie under the surface of chemistry. There are German, Spanish, Korean, Chinese, Italian and Russian editions of this book. In 1997 W.H. Freeman published Old Wine, New Flasks; Reflections on Science and Jewish Tradition, by Roald Hoffmann and Shira Leibowitz Schmidt, a book of the intertwined voices of science and religion. This book is also out in Spanish. Dr. Hoffmann is also the presenter of a television course, "The World of Chemistry", aired on many PBS stations and abroad.

A play, Oxygen, by Carl Djerassi and Roald Hoffmann, has had many productions, and has been published in seven languages.

For further information on Roald Hoffmann’s writings and activities, see his website,

Roald Hoffmann is part of the exhibition project "Sketches of Science" by Volker Steger

Exhibition "Sketches of Science" by Volker Steger - Locations & Dates

Roald Hoffmann's Sketch of Science
Roald Hoffmann's Sketch of Science

By Volker Steger

This man is really something! First, he gives me a little lecture about men and women, noting that women tend to wear jewellery. He is diff erent, telling me that some of his jewellery is Spanish, and some is Native American. Then, he tells an anecdote about Ithaca and Nabokov, and from there straight on to the superior spirituality of women. Time for the drawing! Hoff mann chooses his colours carefully. He starts with a chemical design and then suddenly decides to write a poem linking his thoughts about gender relations and chemistry, which he entitles “Sex and Orbitals.” Unfortunately, the poem ends because the paper is full.

Dieser Mann hat es wirklich in sich! Zuerst hält er mir einen kurzen Vortrag über Männer und Frauen, wobei er anmerkt, dass Frauen eher Schmuck tragen als Männer. Er ist anders und erzählt mir, dass einige seiner Schmuckstücke aus Spanien stammen, andere indianischen Ursprungs sind. Dann gibt er eine Anekdote über Ithaka und Nabokov zum Besten und danach geht’s direkt weiter mit Ausführungen zur speziellen Spiritualität von Frauen. Jetzt aber an die Arbeit! Hoff mann wählt seine Farben für die Zeichnung sorgfältig aus. Er beginnt mit einem chemischen Gestaltungselement und entschließt sich dann plötzlich, ein Gedicht zu schreiben, in dem er seine Gedanken zu Geschlechterbeziehungen und Chemie zu einem Gesamtwerk verarbeitet.

A Scientific Dialogue

by Adam Smith

The statement in green at the top right, “Orbitals control the way chemical reactions go!” sums up what Roald Hoffman has been working on for most of his life, and the discoveries for which he and Kenichi Fukui were awarded the Nobel Prize. The drawings illustrate two aspects of this work. At bottom left is a picture of four carbon atoms with their electron orbitals undergoing what is called an electrocyclic ring-closure reaction. Examination of those molecular orbitals shows that the reaction proceeds in a ‘conrotatory’ direction, with the end groups turning in the same direction, as Hoffman has indicated. And the three reaction schemes shown in red use what Hoffman calls a “primitive visual vocabulary”, ticks and crosses, to illustrate which cycloaddition reactions are allowed or disallowed by orbital symmetry rules. So the formation of hexagonal cyclohexene, top left, is allowed, but the other two reactions are impossible.

This is demanding stuff. “Our basic problem,” says Roald Hoffman, “is that we have got what seems a complicated subject, electrons in molecules, and so one way to humanise it is to put it in a dialogue, and make that dialogue as conversational as it can be.” So Hoffman has imagined a person looking at the diagrams, and reading the statement in green, and thinking ‘What the heck are orbitals?’ So that’s where the first question comes from. The scientist, Hoffman, answers that and the dialogue continues, with the viewer’s comments in light blue and Hoffman’s answers in dark blue. “One of my messages,” says Hoffman, “is science is fun.”

Behind each of those dark blue answers however, particularly the first one, there is quite a bit of depth. “A place for electrons, not quite orbits…” refers to the fact that wave functions for electrons are not like defined planetary orbits, but should instead be interpreted in a probabilistic way, suggesting where, on average, one finds electrons. Towards the end, the dialogue turns to the question of women in science, with Hoffman quoting the figure that 38% of Chemistry PhD recipients in the United States are women. “This is a sea change in the last thirty years, “ remarks Hoffman, “and something the profession can be very proud of. We’ve come a long way from Marie Curie.”


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Roald Hoffmann


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