A Scientist Writes Poetry

Roald Hoffman (b. 1937), Frank H.T. Rhodes Professor of Humane Letters, Cornell University and winner of the 1981 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.


“In 1939 the war began. Our part of Poland was under Russian occupation from 1939-1941. Then in 1941 darkness descended, and the annihilation of Polish Jewry began. We went to a ghetto, then a labor camp. My father smuggled my mother and me out of the camp in early 1943, and for the remainder of the war we were hidden by a good Ukrainian in the attic of a school house in a nearby village. My father remained behind in the camp. He organized a breakout attempt which was discovered. Hillel Safran was killed by the Nazis and their helpers in June 1943. Most of the rest of my family suffered a similar fate. My mother and I, and a handful of relatives, survived. We were freed by the Red Army in June 1944. At the end of 1944 we moved to Przemysl and then to Krakow, where I finally went to school. My mother remarried, and Paul Hoffmann was a kind and gentle father to me until his death, two months prior to the Nobel Prize announcement.”

~ Chemistry Nobel Laureate Roald Hoffman in his biography (https://nobelprize.org)


Roald Hoffman (b. 1937, Poland) won the 1981 Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for theories concerning the course of chemical reactions”. In his biography though, he ventures beyond science to describe his interest in poetry. To Hoffman, poetry and science are not as far apart as one might think. Both struggle with the understanding of the world through words, which are necessarily limiting whether one is trying to describe the workings of the natural world in science, or the deepest feelings we have for the natural world of which we humans are a part. Therefore, both science and poetry share a common journey towards the understanding of ourselves. In Hoffman’s own words:

“The language of science is a language under stress. Words are being made to describe things that seem indescribable in words – equations, chemical structures and so forth. Words do not, cannot mean all that they stand for, yet they are all we have to describe experience. By being a natural language under tension, the language of science is inherently poetic. There is metaphor aplenty in science. Emotions emerge shaped as states of matter and more interestingly, matter acts out what goes on in the soul.

One thing is certainly not true: that scientists have some greater insight into the workings of nature than poets. Interestingly, I find that many humanists deep down feel that scientists have such inner knowledge that is barred to them. Perhaps we scientists do, but in such carefully circumscribed pieces of the universe! Poetry soars, all around the tangible, in deep dark, through a world we reveal and make … I expect to publish four books for a general or literary audience in the next few years. Science will figure in these, but only as a part, a vital part, of the risky enterprise of being human.”

Here are two poems by Hoffmann:


Cantilevered methyl groups,
battered in endless and harmonic motion.
A molecule swims,
dispersing its functionality,
scattering its reactive centers.
Not every collision,
not every punctilious trajectory
by which billiard-ball complexes
arrive at their calculable meeting places
leads to reaction. Most encounters end in
a harmless sideways swipe.

An exchange of momentum
a mere deflection.
And so it is for us.
The hard knock must be just right.
The eyes need lock,
and glimmers of intent penetrate.
The setting counts.
A soft brush of mohair or touch of hand.
A perfumed breeze.
Men (and women) are not as different
from molecules as they think.

Paul Cezanne, Mountains in Provence L’Estaque 1880, 54x74cm oil/canvas, National Museum of Wales, Wales, UK

Extracts from THE SEEING IS GOOD (2009)

On the highest peak of Carl’s ranch
there is a rough brick throne
where he or I, can sit,
survey the domain:
to the west, the faint ship-etched sea;
everywhere — splayed out hills,
up to now too green for our painters.

Cleared hills, reddening in jags along ridges,
hills contending to upstage
in tan and forest green other hills.
I owe this landscape another look
after your oils, friends.
I want to learn from you
resurrection of the living body of this land.
For what shimmers before me,
in the distance (or on your stretched ca
is not grass or brush, or this sky,
but a colored plane,
fields of unswaying ochre, green, blue.

Further Study

Hoffman has written over a hundred poems since he began pursuing his passion in poetry in the mid-1970s. He published the first of a number of collections, The Metamict State, in 1987, followed three years later by Gaps and Verges, then Memory Effects (1999), Soliton (2002), and most recently, in Spanish, Catalista. He has also co-written a play with fellow chemist Carl Djerassi, entitled Oxygen, which has been performed worldwide, translated into ten languages. For more of his individual poems, check out his website at http://www.roaldhoffmann.com/individual-poems

Leave a Reply