Roald Hoffmann was born in 1937 in Złoczów, Poland. Having survived the war, he came to the U.S in 1949, and studied chemistry at Columbia and Harvard Universities (Ph.D. 1962). Since 1965 he is at Cornell University, now as the Frank H. T. Rhodes Professor of Humane Letters, Emeritus. He has received many of the honors of his profession, including the 1981 Nobel Prize in Chemistry (shared with Kenichi Fukui).
Notable at the same time is his reaching out to the general public; he was the presenter, for example, of a television course in chemistry titled "The World of Chemistry," shown widely since 1990.
As a writer, Hoffmann has carved out a land between science, poetry, and philosophy, through many essays and three books, Chemistry Imagined with artist Vivian Torrence, The Same and Not the Same (translated into six languages) and Old Wine, New Flasks: Reflections on Science and Jewish Tradition, with Shira Leibowitz Schmidt. A collection of his essays and lectures, edited by J. Kovac and M. Weisberg, “Roald Hoffmann on the Philosophy, Art, and Science of Chemistry,” has just been published, as well as a book edited by him and I. B. Whyte, “Beyond the Finite: The Sublime in Art and Science.” Five collections of his poetry have been published, including book-length selections of poems translated into Spanish and Russian. He has also co-written a play with fellow chemist Carl Djerassi, entitled Oxygen, and two by himself, Should’ve and Something that Belongs to You.
The Chemical Imagination at work in very tight places
Diamond anvil cells now permit the study of matter under multimegabar (i.e. several hundred GPa) pressures. The properties of matter in this pressure regime differ drastically from those known at 1 atm. Just how different chemistry is at high pressure and the role that a chemical intuition for bonding and structure can have in understanding matter at high pressures will be explored in this lecture. I will discuss in detail an overlapping hierarchy of responses to increased density, consisting of (a) squeezing out van der Waals space (for molecular crystals); (b) increasing coordination; (c) decreasing the bond length of covalent bonds and the size of anions; and (d) an extreme regime of electrons moving off atoms and new modes of correlation. Examples of the startling chemistry and physics that emerge under such extreme conditions will alternate in this account with qualitative chemical ideas about the bonding involved.