Roald Hoffmann: Chemist And Poet

Filed by Ivan Amatoimg_0952a.jpg

They began showing up one by one almost an hour before the premier literary event at the Boston meeting of ACS. By the time Roald Hoffmann had begun reading his first poem at 11 AM in the cavernous Boston Convention & Exposition Center, the sizable booth of the ACS Publications Division—the venue for the event—had transformed into a standing-room-only poetry event. In the din and vastness of the exposition hall, Hoffmann and his rapt audience managed to encase themselves, for a short time, in what seemed like a small bistro in what might have been the artsy part of a city. A podcast of Roald Hoffmann’s poetry reading can be found here.

Known mostly for his lifelong work in theoretical chemistry for which he was awarded, among other honors, the 1981 Nobel Prize in Chemistry (with Kenichi Fukui) and the Priestley Medal in 1990, Hoffmann has also been making his way in the literary world. Over the years, he has written books, plays, and poems. (For a full portfolio and biography, go to roaldhoffman.com.)

For more that 40 years, his professional home has been Cornell University, in Ithaca, N.Y., where he is a professor of chemistry and, since 1996, the Frank H. T. Rhodes Professor of Human Letters. To acknowledge his lifelong devotion and record of achievement in the chemical world and beyond, Hoffmann is also being honored at the meeting during an all-afternoon presidential session on Tuesday titled “Celebrating a Craftsman of the Art of Understanding: Roald Hoffmann at 70.”

For his Monday appearance at the convention center, Hoffmann offered the 150 or so attendees more than a poetry reading. In some ways, his performance was more like that of a storyteller. In the 45 minutes during which he read some 20 poems, he wove in preambles, humorous asides, and reflections about life, work, and relationships that placed the poetry in the context of personal history, world history, the moment of literary inspiration and creative inspiration, and the quest for meaning and spiritual moorings. He shared all of this with his audience as though he were giving a gift.

When he was finished reading and had answered a few questions from the audience, he admonished those gathered to open up to creative muses, even those muses that are not of a scientific bent. At that point, he was only half done, it turns out. After the reading itself, Hoffmann took a seat at the front of the booth with a stack of signable pamphlets containing about 11 of his poems in a compelling and thoughtful design that C&EN Assistant Director of Marketing & Exhibits Elise Swinehart had prepared for the event.

img_0956b.jpgLike a book signing, many of those who had gathered for the reading formed a line, pamphlets in hand, that stretched for 15 yards and curved around the booth’s circular boundary. With aplomb and patience, Hoffmann greeted each person in line, signed the pamphlet, and greeted the next person in line, then the next, then the next, even as the line continuously regenerated, never getting shorter. He was tireless. Even 45 minutes later, when I needed to leave the exposition hall, the line had yet to disappear.

In the end, these few literary hours amounted, I’m sure, to a quiet and slow interlude that quickly receded into the rush and frenzy of the meeting with its thousands of events so spread out all over Boston. Hopefully, it will be a moment that those who were part of it will remember as one of the better ones of the meeting.

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1 Response to “Roald Hoffmann: Chemist And Poet”


  1. 1 MHR December 3, 2010 at 8:57 pm

    I loved this. Science and art flowing together. There is a hesitation in most of us when the scientific understanding of formal study meets the emotional side of ourselves but together it is a unifying convergence. Bless you for your loving and beautiful poems.


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