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Nobel Prize Winner Connects Science and Religion

Roald Hoffmann
Roald Hoffmann

Nobel laureate in chemistry Roald Hoffman visited IC this semester to speak about the positive connections between science and religion.

The student IC Chemistry Club invited Hoffmann as its inaugural guest in what the students hope will be an annual speaker series. “They knew he would have a big impact,” says the club’s adviser, assistant professor of chemistry Michael Haaf ’94. “He’s kind of a rock star in the chemistry world.”

Drawing from the 1997 book he cowrote with lecturer Shira Leibowitz Schmidt, Old Wine, New Flasks: Reflections on Science and Jewish Tradition, Hoffmann told a story about the ancient pigment Tyrian purple, which is found in certain Mediterranean snails. In the Torah, Jews were told to use the pigment to dye the threads in the shawls they used for prayer; 10,000 snails were needed to dye one shawl. The color, which turns a brilliant blue when exposed to sunlight, was supposed to remind them of the sky, heaven, and God. Chemistry was used to make the color stick to the fabric; otherwise the dye would wash out. Hoffmann used the tale to illustrate how “scientific knowledge, aesthetics, and faith cohabit,” arguing that “sometimes their dialogue is uneasy, but it is their intertwined voices that shape true human understanding.”

Although an atheist, Hoffmann is drawn to his Jewish heritage, primarily because of his childhood experiences in Europe during World War II. Born in 1937 in Poland, by the time he was six he had already survived life in a labor camp. In 1943 he and his mother were sneaked out of the camp by his father and hidden in a schoolhouse attic by a Ukrainian until the war’s end. His father did not survive.

He moved to the United States in 1949. His theory on chemical reactivity, called orbital symmetry, won him the Nobel Prize and helped scientists create design tools for chemical experiments. He has also published several volumes of poetry. 

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