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Nobel laureate explores connection between arts and science

Roald Hoffmann, Nobel Prize laureate and Frank H. T. Rhodes Professor of Humane Letters, Emeritus at Cornell University, delivered this year’s Alfred Bader Lecture on Oct. 30. Communications Officer Andrew Stokes spoke with Dr. Hoffmann about his lecture and lengthy career in the arts and sciences.

Andrew Stokes: Can you tell me a bit about the topic of your lecture?

Roald Hoffmann: The lecture was about the commonalities between the arts and sciences. English chemist and novelist CP Snow argued in the 1950s that there were two distinct cultures between artists and scientists and that the two were incapable of really communicating with each other. With that in mind I looked at examples from chemistry, poetry and painting to note the deep similarities they have.

Along with winning the 1981 Nobel Prize for Chemistry, Dr. Roald Hoffmann has written poetry, plays and philosophy.

AS: Why did you pick this topic for the lecture?

RH: This topic is important to me as both an artist and a chemist, because I’m interested in the interface between the two. The arts penetrate to important questions that aren’t necessarily scientific but that nonetheless trouble us all. I picked this topic especially because of its connection to Alfred and Isabel Bader. I’ve known the Baders for nearly 40 years and I’m a great admirer of Alfred – this lecture is really for the two of them who are strong believers in the importance of both arts and science.

AS: Have the two of you worked together in chemistry?

RH: When we first met one another years ago, we took an instant liking to each other. We’ve never worked together professionally, but our shared love of paintings, music and chemistry has led to a long friendship between us. We’re also both European immigrants; Alfred came shortly before World War Two, while I’m a childhood survivor of the Holocaust and came to America in 1949.

AS: You’ve had a prodigious career in chemistry, but can you tell me about your work in the creative arts?

RH: Around midlife I started writing creatively. I began writing poetry, and now have four books of poetry in English and one in Spanish and Russian. I’ve also written essays, short fiction, philosophy and have now started writing plays. My creative writing allows me to express myself in a way that I otherwise wouldn’t get a chance to do.

AS: How did a career in science affect your creative work?

RH: It’s had a very strong effect on my creative work. I write on some of the traditional topics, like nature, relationships and love, but I try to make use of the language of science. It isn’t easy, but I try. One of the plays I’ve written is about the discovery of oxygen and what it means to be a scientist. My work in the arts has affected my science too. When I write a chemistry paper, I try to bring an artistic sensibility to it. I’ve never tried opening a paper with a poem because I don’t think it would get past the gatekeepers, but stylistically I’ve tried to bring about a greater humanization of science writing. I think it’s worked well in that my papers are viewed by people as being a more complete image of the thing they discuss.

The Bader lecture, organized by Dr. Victor Snieckus and the Office of Advancement, is delivered in honour of Alfred Bader’s contributions to Queen’s University and the field of chemistry.