Roald Hoffmann


Interview, January 2005

Interview with Professor Roald Hoffmann by Joanna Rose, science writer, 17 January 2005.

Professor Hoffmann talks about the purpose of science; religion and science (6:42); reductionism (14:17); his interest in writing poetry (18:23); science as a source of inspiration (21:02); his interest in teaching (24:21); the key to creativity (27:10); and reactions to his poetry writing (28:41).

Interview transcript

What is science and what is science in relation to other ways for humans to deal with the wonders of life, like literature and poetry or music or arts or religion. This is what we are going to talk about today. Welcome to this interview Roald Hoffman. Maybe we will start with the first question. What is science?

Roald Hoffman: First I think science is a social system of western European invention, not an American one, for gaining reliable knowledge. I would say not truth, and we can talk about why there is a difference. And it has several components to it. It has curious people, some of whom are interested in mathematics or good at it. It has people who are willing to get their hands dirty, experimenters, not just philosophers. It has a system for communicating that knowledge and in fact a compulsion if not an addiction for doing so, exchanging that knowledge. And it is a system which makes use of pretty normal people to get interesting things to learn about the world around us and for us.

It has another aspect and which sometimes has been lost, it was over romanticised in the 19th century and that is that it should improve the human condition in some way. And that is implicit in Nobel’s will, it is interesting that it is there because it is a 19th century document. I would say like Peter Medawar does that at least we should ameliorate the human condition, to make it a little bit better. It is a little bit lost when science has become so professional as it is but I think it is important to revive it.

You also wrote something else about science in your book, with a colleague, ‘Old Wine, New Flasks’. You wrote ‘the purpose of science is to revive and cultivate a perpetual state of wonder’.

Roald Hoffman: I think science has a spiritual side to it. And that sense of wonder is what I refer to and that also sometimes, in the everyday struggle to gain knowledge, is lost, but it is part of what keeps people going. And knowing what the structure of DNA is, how this change and replicate in a body is just so wonderful. So there is a sense of wonder. In that sense I think the divisions that somehow science is materialistic and that there are other things which fulfil us spiritually, whether it is art, music or religion for some or literature, I think it is a little bit of a false division. I think there is spiritual value in science which sometimes scientists have lost themselves.

Now it is one way of knowing the world to get back to your initial question about other ways, it’s not the only way of knowing the world. And one of the things that is not so good about the science is given in its beginnings in an analytical tradition of the cart of dividing things up and then trying to compose them and then with a reductionist philosophy added to it that somehow understanding is defined by going deeper and deeper. What you have got is a set up of science that it has created a set of problems for itself which are capable of solutions. And that’s very different from what the arts and literature gives us and it deals with such a small part of the world. There are scientists who would say that other things too, like religion and art eventually, come out from some genetic predispositions and manipulations of our culture.

I’m thinking of Wilson’s socio-biology and things like that. But I think there are different ways of understanding this world. There is a reductionist way. Let’s see. If someone sends me a poem, an anonymous poem, and it is a line from John Dunne: ‘Love is a growing or full constant light and his first moment afternoon is night’. Knowing the sequence of firing those neurons in John Dunn’s mind when he wrote that poem or in a person with a mind, or the person who sent me that poem, or in my mind as I read it, knowing the sequence of beautiful biochemical actions and behind the firing of the neurons, that will get you a lot of Nobel Prizes but it has nothing in the world to do with understanding that poem.

That poem is understood on the level of the language and the psychology of the moment in terms of questions that seem, to some scientists, questions that are circular reasoning. And because you are using the same words to define the question as you are trying to explain them and yet that is meaning that is to be found. I think scientists sometimes get a little bit arrogant. And thinking about all they can do with the powers that they have and then they get upset when people outside of science still value religion or art, I do not think scientists are jealous of art but … religion are a little strange. So I think science is not …

Are there any similarities between the scientific way of searching for answers and for example religious or for artistic?

Roald Hoffman: Well, let’s talk about religion and science a little bit. I think religion and science come out initially from some of the same roots and that is a desire to understand the world. The mysteries of the world. The lightning, the lights, the stars, the fine patterns in it. Now they start out also for many religions with a feeling that the world is real. Some religions have added on that the real world does not matter and what matters is the afterlife. But a lot of religion begins with the idea that the world is real and that the actions of human beings matter, whether you are good in some way. I think that is actually a fairly common starting point. After that I think that there are differences on deciding who is in charge of the order, let’s say. But I think they start off from some similar things. What was the rest of the question?

There is the difference when you are thinking about religion you are thinking also about the postulates and the religious beliefs that you can’t question. Are there some dogmas in science that you just not mention?

Roald Hoffman: One can look for dogmas in science and I think they are there. At the same time the edible complex is very strong in science of young people making careers by slaying their fathers, by drawing out ideas and that is an accepted way of doing so. A much less respect for authority in the end. But there are dogmas. So why are there dogmas? Because there are human beings at work.

But somehow the social system of science that there are many people doing things assures that in the long run those dogmas do not stay dogmas. Whereas the social system of religion perpetuates the authority often. And makes it more difficult to introduce change. Interesting balance between change and stasis in science. You do invoke authority that is in part what those footnotes are about in papers, but at the same time you want to do something new. An interesting system.

So we are somewhere near the question of the truth. You mentioned that science is not searching for truth.

Roald Hoffman: I think it is searching for approximations to the truth but I tell you why I don’t want us to be put up in a certain 19th century way as searchers for the truth. First of all we all know that there are different approaches to the truth and the truth as a femoral can be expressed in different words, even if we all believe there is an underlying reality, and I do believe that. But I think our representations of that reality are human made. In that sense I also think that religions are human made. Even though there are something that seeks, I think religion is an emergent phenomenon like science and like … and like literature it is human.

The reason I do not want us to be searching after truth is we put ourselves up then as, now we will mix the metaphors of religion and science as priests of the truth and then we have that much further to fall. Why is the public so interested in fraud and science? For the same reasons it is interested in the sexual misdeeds of our ministers. You set yourself up ethically at some point to be about truth or morals and then you do not obey it, then people take delight in that somehow, because it confirms to them they are all members of weakness in some way, that they can not be good all the time. And so I think fraud and science is not important actually, because of the system of science and also I think because of the psychopathology of fraud.

Let me explain. I think the people who forge data or facts are usually sick in someway. And being sick there are two consequences. One is that there are some natural defences against thinking that they will be caught when they forge are abrogated, are put aside so they do crazy things. Second is that they never forged anything dull, they always forge something interesting. For instance even in the most devious cases there is some student who is sick and there is some professor who has a favourite theory and a student concocts an experiment which supports that theory. Something like this happened at Cornell. But it is always something interesting. It is not a little everyday cheating of that type. And so given that scientists, being human, are much more likely to try to prove somebody wrong than to prove somebody right. The moment somebody comes out with something interesting sure enough there is somebody around the world who has some vested interest in that problem, an alternative theory who will test that experiment.

But about that question of truth, you mentioned that there is this part about complex in science, that you always have to throw away the old truths and prove the new ones. So it is something about the provisoric nature of the truth and science.

The truth is provisional. It is to be modified in different ways. I think reliable knowledge is, that phrase reliable knowledge that I like is not mine, I borrowed it from John Ziman who is a British physicist and sociologist of science has written about this. I sort of like it. I think we try to get things that are reasonably reproducible and that can be used. And they can be. The description for an aspirin factory written in Japanese or in Portuguese allows that factory to be built independent of the language that it is written in.

There is something else there also. People talk about the relation between the truth, beauty and the simplicity. Do you think there is such a relation?

Roald Hoffman: No. I think this is a falling into the weakness of the human mind to think that the world is simple. And it is an interesting tripartite relationship. I guess I’m fighting in part what I would say is, pernicious ideas of physicists coming into chemistry who think the moment you can write up Sherman’s equation that all of chemistry is solved. And behind that are statements by the Iraq great physicist, theoretical physicist about this equation that an equation, if it is beautiful, must be true.

Yes, some are in the old world but not in this world that we have. The equations are simple in part and yet complex. Symmetry is there, symmetry gets broken. Things happen in a body especially when they are subject to evolution things in incredibly complicated ways. The way a message is sent from one nerve to another with an intermediate of a molecule, dopamine on serotonin and there is one thing that sets it loose and another one that detects it, but it is not done in one way. After a while this thing looks like what we would call in the United States, a Rube Goldberg machine, one of those cartoons where there is something that does something else that does something else and terribly complicated.

So those things are I think those are natural, that things are complicated. I think it is the dreams of the simplicity of our mind which cannot sometimes be over complexity and that’s true of personal relationships as well as it is with politics or with science. What is interesting to me is that scientists should fall for simplicity. Given that they are faced with the realities of complexity all the time. And they will come back and tell you, physicists, well if you take it apart underneath there are some simple equations. Yes, but the taking apart has destroyed the essence and the reality of anything that is real, and they never put it together. They only take the watch apart like children.

So this is reductionism?

Roald Hoffman: Yes.

Is this the voice of a chemist?

Roald Hoffman: Yes. It’s a voice of a chemist and the voice of someone trying to fight reductionism, exemplified by what Stephen Weinberg writes about or other people like that. And it is in defence of the complexity that is the reality of the real world. I think it is also perhaps a poet talking here and wants to see the particular and sometimes does not want things taken apart. Both the particular and the relationship with the whole to each other. There are sciences that look at that but not the ideology of science, the philosophy of science because the philosophers who did this, with one exception of Michael Polanyi, were a physicist in that training or their training was in logic in philosophy tend to go for the simplistic point of view.

So as you mentioned this is also a voice of a poet, not only a chemist so maybe we can listen to one of your poems?

Roald Hoffman: Sure. Let me read a poem but let me preface it by some comments about it. In it you will see many voices of different ways of trying to understand the world around something simple which is something happening in Provence in France, […]. And the poem is called ‘Enough Already’ and behind it, initially it was called ‘Dayenu’ which is what one a prayer, a song in the Passover say there, which means that would have been enough if God had only taken us out of Israel that would have been enough, but he had done other things. And there is a little bit of that. And there is in this also … so there is something about my Jewish background in this, in the phraseology here. Let me read it anyway.

Enough Already

You walk in to the sun-
splashed olives’ mossy
trunks, greener than
fresh grass. This doesn’t
seem to be enough
so you think – even
here they grow olives
only on warm terraces;
and ask who first found
olives had to be cured?
This cleverness, too
does not satisfy. So,
walking hand-in-hand
into the grove you say:
the world needs us
(and other lovers)
to give such life; which
would do nicely for most,
save those who’d leave it
for a Creator. But
then, alone, you look
real close, and the black
spot on the green bark
you reach for sharpens
into inch-and-a-half of
scorpion, you see a
red beetle, and by God,
that does suffice.

Thank you.

Roald Hoffman: So there is not too much science in that poem.

No. It is good. Do you find science is an inspiration for your writing?

Roald Hoffman: Yes, it is. It is limited because some of the sort of poetry and sciences depend on them being part of the cognitive framework. Knowing what went before, what it is about. But part of it is what I find inspiring is the language, the kind of natural language that scientists speak, and they don’t the language is important. They think equations and chemical formulas are important. But language is all we’ve got, and this language is made to serve and express things so words like energy and force mean special things well defined and we try to make them fit. And then there are words invented and words used, let me give you an example.

What often happens to me is it is given to me to go to dull seminars and sometimes after I fall asleep I wake up and it is still going on and so I listen sometimes to the words even if they are not so interesting. And someone came at a seminar and was talking about some mathematical equation, he said “Let us assume free boundary conditions”. He was talking about some technical words, boundary conditions are what you do on a mathematical equation to make it fit at the ends but sort of the idea, free boundaries was very interesting because it was a typical Zen idea of something being free and something being constrained. So I worked that into a poem. So the language is interesting. Then there is a lot of metaphor, let me give you an example.

In science and in poetry?

Roald Hoffman: Yes, in science which I can use in poetry. Someone was talking about once at another seminar about the metamict state. It is a funny word, metamict. It is not used very much. Someone had invented it, so what was it? It was a state of matter of, for instance, radioactive minerals. Minerals in which there was a radioactive atom like thorium. The minerals when formed gave beautiful transparent crystals, perfect crystals, but after a while the atoms which were sitting at the sites in the crystal began decomposing in nuclear reactions. And as they emitted some ray they rebounded and the ions that were left behind bounced into other atoms and created this order in the lattice and with time the crystal grew whitish yellow and amorphous dull looking and was destroyed. And that was the metamict state. It’s a poem by itself, I mean the ending is within that. And all that order has been destroyed without any plan to do so. So I took that and wrote a poem about that. So there are metaphors like that.

Yes. I wonder what gives you satisfaction.

Roald Hoffman: It is still all of the things, I should let go of some of them. On all means the science and the teaching and the writing. They all give tremendous satisfaction. I’m not good at anything else like music so it is the writing through which I exercise my literary artistic activities. They are all tied together somehow because what gives me the greatest pleasure in the research is finding an explanation which to me is teaching. Or seeing some relationship between two things. Like that there is a group of atoms in inorganic chemistry that behaves in a similar way to organic chemist, to an organic grouping. That a manganese with five carbon monoxides attached to it is like a methyl group like a CH3. Now I see that as both poetry and teaching because I’ve made a connection between organic and inorganic. In some way I have created a metaphor. This like that and that is a little bit like a poem.

I’ve also used that for teaching. I give it out to the community, I publish it and I talk about it. And it also still gives me satisfaction to teach first year chemistry which this last year, the year 2003, 2004, I taught two first year courses, usually I teach one first year as I’m doing this year. You know I’ve taught that material for 40 years, I know it pretty well but first of all I find some new ways to say it, unfortunately it stretches too long now. Second, there is a light in the kids’ eyes, not everyone, some of them they are asleep and for some of them are too driven by professional aims, society and their parents and themselves. Let’s not blame just the society, to become doctors or engineers and they don’t think enough. But some of them just relax and I see, I know because I am a good teacher, the nonverbal science that they’ve understood. And I’ve released something in their minds. I haven’t, the facts that I’ve told them are irrelevant, I’ve empowered them to think, that is a wonderful feeling.

It sounds like the key to creativity that you are talking about is that you all the time go back to the start point somehow, to the first great students and the first questions.

Roald Hoffman: It has been important to me. I’ve been lucky that I’m doing theory. So theory is about explaining and understanding phenomenon. Therefore I’m already in a quasi-teaching mode. Then I also have found that I am good at explaining to experimental chemists complicated theoretical things. One thing I’ve done since the Nobel Prize which has been important to me is the simple teaching thing within research that is I have explained to a community of chemists called inorganic /—/ chemists, how not to be afraid of the language of physics. Language of band structures and densities of states of firming levels. The kind of thing that is involved in designing new super conductors. And I wrote a book about it but I have also been writing many articles, actually mostly I write articles. By little examples I have been able to teach chemists not to be afraid of this language. I have done some good things along the way too but I think it is that teaching thing which has given me pleasure.

You have done a lot of interesting research and written poems and written essays and also a play and you are even behind the scientific café in Greenwich Village in the university. And you have also been participating in a carnival, last year’s carnival in the Rio de Janeiro.

Roald Hoffman: I helped a little, yes. Actually, went down to carnival for a science. Hard to believe.

So my question would be how do your colleagues or the scientific community react to that?

Roald Hoffman: Well, I think or how do they react to the poetry in general to the excursions out of science. On one hand they react positively, and they are glad someone is doing it. They have a lot of respect for spiritual things. It shows up in interesting ways not necessarily directly, but it shows up in little things like when somebody writes a book that they use a poem as an epigraph or something like that. I think some of them think that he can afford to do it and we can’t and to some extent they are right.

The young assistant professor up for promotion, should he or she put up front their activity outside the science. I think they should put in something about their teaching and their attempts to communicate to the public. But very often they are afraid to do so and they make some judgement and it is correct that it is not the prime thing they are evalued on but it certainly adds little on the edges and adds some colour, could make a difference in a decision. Some people are just, some of my colleagues might think that this is something one does when one no longer does science, goes into administration, does history, sociology of science. Well, so to them I have to prove to them that I still do science. I have just finished writing two proposals. Maybe I feel I have to prove but I enjoy doing it also.

You know what hurts the most is when it comes through that somehow people think that this activity of writing poetry or running this café or something, when they think this is easy. That hurts. Because on a poem I go through typically 15, 20 drafts, I don’t do that on a scientific paper. No, it is true. I have written 500 scientific papers, so it becomes easier but still it was always easier to do the science and I am actually trying something harder. And they just have to try it, I would say. So I get angry at that if that happens. But by and large there is a lot of respect in the community for this.

The poetry writing, does this make you a better scientist do you think?

Roald Hoffman: I think the poetry writing of course makes me feel better about myself for having tried to do that. I think that is true about anyone, that they need some other thing to do. I think the poetry writing has given me a bit of an appreciation and more for the power of concise statement but then I have that in science too. Once again comes back maybe simplicity, but it is not quite simplicity because it is a complex statement of word but it says something economically. Something intensely. And I have learned a little how to do that through the poetry.

I think much more than either the science helping me to do the poetry or the poetry helping the science. I think I am working out something that is in me that wants to see the relationships, to watch to see relationships, to communicate that to people. And I am doing that in the science and I am doing that in the poetry in other ways. And occasionally because I don’t believe in separating my worlds I will separate them. I’ll not write that article or the poetry because I am not going to get it published because I have got to get by the gate keepers. But occasionally and the kind of thing I have done here in Stockholm, this visit, someone gives me a chance to talk about both worlds and not to separate them and I love it.

So my final question would be how do you find time to do all of this?

Roald Hoffman: Oh, that is not a good question because it is, I’ll answer it honestly but there is no time to do all this. First of all, I should probably give up the science and do the writing, so why should I? If I had some rational reasoning behind it but I’m not rational. The rational reasoning is that there is simply lots of good people doing the science, there are fewer people and therefore I think it is of more value to society to be able to work on this area in-between, of popularising science, of building bridges between the scientists and especially the shapers of the spirit and the arts and humanities. There are less people doing that. But I still find the science fun, first of all.

But now how do I do all this? So I haven’t given up the science and the teaching. I am 67 and I could retire but I don’t want to, I don’t have to, so I am still doing the science. As I said I have just written two major research proposals to the National Science Foundation for two different aspects of my work, each with three years of research. I have ideas that I want to work them out. So I have added on the writing to the science and I would say that if I were to analyse my days are very complex and interesting. But if I were to analyse it more than half the time I spend probably on writing or societal activities somehow related to it more than on the science. I’ve added it on and it has not been done without personal problems in my life. It is not easy to live with someone like me who does all these things because I need to be in control of my time, I need to be able to, if I want to, to sit down and write and there have been stresses in my personal life as a result. So, it has not been without some difficulties.

This is the press?

Roald Hoffman: Yes.

I wish we had much more time to talk, I am afraid we have to conclude. Thank you so much, Professor Hoffman.

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