Roald Hoffman. Photo by Wikimedia.
I used to be quite good at maths. Way back in primary
school, I could rattle off my times tables quicker than most of
the kids in the class, and long division held no fears for me.
Then came high school; instead of numbers, the textbook was
suddenly full of the letters x, y and z, and because of this I
rapidly found myself at the bottom end of the class.
To this day, I'd describe my mathematical ability as rubbish
(and I'm being generous). This is unfortunate, as maths is
rather important in chemistry - I hate to admit it, but maths
can potentially describe all matter in the universe. And
we're lucky to have one of the foremost exponents of maths in
chemistry coming to visit Otago this month. He's the Nobel
laureate Roald Hoffmann. And he's quite a remarkable man.
Roald Hoffmann was born in a small town in Poland (now in
modern day Ukraine) in 1937. He and a small number of his
family survived World War 2, despite internment in both a
ghetto and a labour camp, and they emigrated to the US in
1949. After learning English (his sixth language), he
eventually obtained his PhD from Harvard and embarked on a
research career that saw him awarded the Nobel Prize in
chemistry in 1981, at the very young age of 44.
At the start of his career, Hoffmann was lucky to work with
Robert Burns Woodward (Nobel Prize in chemistry, 1965), an
absolute colossus of chemistry. Both men were interested in
the question of why chemical reactions proceeded in the way
that they did; in particular, why did certain chemical
reactions lead to only a single product when many products
were potentially possible?
To answer this question, Hoffmann had to apply the formidable
mathematical principles inherent in quantum mechanics, and he
was able to do this thanks to the fact that the computer was
becoming available at this time - carrying out these
calculations by hand would have been well-nigh impossible.
This work led to the Woodward-Hoffmann rules, which are
familiar to many an undergraduate chemistry student. These
rules agreed with experiment, and, most importantly, allowed
the prediction of the course of chemical reactions which had
yet to be carried out. This was a wonderfully elegant piece
of work whose underlying simplicity impresses even today.
Hoffmann has gone on to apply mathematics to chemistry in
many other ways. But, crucially, he has the rare gift of
being able to go beyond the difficult and arcane mathematics
and explain what is going on in words that are understandable
by scientists for whom maths is not a strong point (in other
words, yours truly).
In addition to being a chemist, Hoffmann has been a TV show
host, and is also a published playwright and poet. He is
giving a public lecture at the College Tower G07 Lecture
Theatre (on Union St, down by the stadium) on February 20
from 2pm to 4pm, and anyone with a scientific background who
is interested in why matter is as it is would find something
of interest in this talk.
And the very next day we have William Phillips (Nobel
laureate in physics, 1997) giving a public lecture. This
unprecedented concentration of intellectual firepower is a
coup both for the University and Dunedin. I urge you to make
the most of it.
- Dr Blackman is an associate professor in the
chemistry department at the University of Otago.