Nobel Prize winner talks science and art

MARK NANCE/Sun-Gazette Nobel Prize Laureate Dr. Roald Hoffmann autographs one of his books for Lycoming College Biology Department Chairman Dr. Mary Morrison following his presentation on "Chemistry's Essential Tensions" at the Mary Welch Honors Hall Wednesday. The presentation was part of The James and Emily Douthat Distinguished Lectureship, which is now in its fourth year.

When Nobel Laureate in Chemistry Roald Hoffmann was a student at Columbia University, he thought seriously of going into the arts.

“I worked up the courage to tell my parents I didn’t want to be a doctor, but not to tell them I wanted to be an art historian,” he said during a lecture at Lycoming College Thursday night.

Interestingly enough, he would later make his mark in science and win the Nobel Prize in 1981.

Hoffmann, 81, talked about the relationship of science and art.

He discussed chemistry, noting it is the art, craft and business of substances and their transformations.

And, he touched on people’s perceptions of chemistry.

Change, Hoffmann said, is what chemistry is all about.

“That’s why it attracts artists,” he said.

Centuries-old art, he noted, has depicted images of people engaged in performing chemistry.

Even an image of a molecule, a very basic scientific image, can be seen as a work of art.

Hoffmann, an author and prolific writer of science, poetry, philosophy and other works, pondered what choices an artist makes in creating a work.

He said it’s often the irregular shapes and colors of a work that make it beautiful, pieces that trend between a kind of order and disorder.

“Curves are inherently more interesting than straight lines,” he said.

Hoffmann looked at the creations of a William Blake poem and Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev’s periodic table.

He marveled over the rough draft of each, how both Blake and Mendeleev painstakingly crossed out words and letters and made mistakes before eventually coming up with final products.

“You can see something in this,” he said.

They are examples, he noted, of the essential nature of trying to accomplish something.

Hoffmann said everything for him goes back to his college days.

The core subjects he took in the arts fascinated him.

Hoffmann, who holds a Ph.D from Harvard University, eventually pursued chemistry.

By his 30s, he was so caught up in his career and with raising a family, that his interest in literature and the arts waned.

“Eventually, I got back to it,” he said.

These days, Hoffmann said he reads novels rather than nonfiction.

“Let the world flow in,” he told students. “You can do it.”

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