The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1981
Born: 18 July 1937, Zloczov, Poland (now Ukraine)
Affiliation at the time of the award: Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, USA
Prize motivation: “for their theories, developed independently, concerning the course of chemical reactions”
Prize share: 1/2
Roald Hoffmann was born into a Jewish family in Złoczów, Poland (now Ukraine). His father Hillel Safran was a civil engineer and his mother Clara Hillel a teacher. Roald and his mother survived the ghetto, a labor camp and 15 months in hiding but his father was killed by the Nazis. After the war, Clara married Paul Hoffmann. The family moved to the United States in 1949 and finally Roald was able to go to school on an every day basis. Roald Hoffmann went to Stuyvesant High School, Columbia College and received his doctorate at Harvard University in 1962.
In chemical reactions, molecules composed of atoms meet and form new compounds. Electrons orbiting around the atoms’ nuclei play an important role here. After Kenichi Fukui proved that the properties of the electron orbits that most weakly bound to the atom are critical in chemical reactions, Roald Hoffmann went on to further develop these theories from the mid-1960s. Independently of one another, Hoffmann and Fukui both demonstrated how the symmetrical properties of electron orbitals explain the course of chemical reactions.
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