Roald Hoffmann was born in 1937 in Zloczow, Poland. Having survived the war, he came to the United States in 1949 and studied chemistry at Columbia and Harvard Universities (PhD, 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 honours of his profession, including the 1981 Nobel Prize in Chemistry (shared with Kenichi Fukui).
Notable at the same time is his reaching out to the general public; he participated, for example, in the production of a television course in introductory chemistry titled The World of Chemistry, shown widely since 1990. And, as a writer, Hoffmann has carved out a land between science, poetry, and philosophy, through many essays and three books, Chemistry Imagined with artist Vivian Torrence, The Same and Not the Same and Old Wine (translated into six languages), New Flasks: Reflections on Science and Jewish Tradition, with Shira Leibowitz Schmidt.
Hoffmann is also an accomplished poet and playwright. He began writing poetry in the mid-1970s, eventually publishing the first of a number of collections, The Metamict State, in 1987, followed three years later by Gaps and Verges, then Memory Effects in 1999, Soliton (2002), and most recently, Catalista. He has also co-written a play with fellow chemist Carl Djerassi, entitled Oxygen, which has been performed worldwide, translated into ten languages. His second play, Should’ve, is a play about the social responsibility of scientist and artists. It debuted at the 41st Annual International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry Congress in Turin, Italy.
The Vancouver premiere of Should’ve the week of March 3, 2008 at UBC’s Frederic Wood Theatre created the occasion for the visit of Dr. Hoffmann to the Institute as 2008 Wall Distinguished Visiting Professor. Among other contributions in the space of one extraordinary week, he attended the Institute reception and opening night of the play, participated in the talk-back session and gala reopening of the Department of Chemistry’s heritage building that followed; gave a Wall Associates Forum lunch talk, and a lecture at the Department of Chemistry; and led a Wall Fireside Chat on topics that ranged from chemistry to poetry.