No role for suffering in building better future

Nobel Laureate Prof Roald Hoffmann advises University of Otago postgraduate chemistry students yesterday that scientists must communicate with the wider community. Photo by Peter McIntosh.Polish-born Nobel Prize winner Prof Roald Hoffmann did not become a ''better person'' through his experiences in World War 2, including surviving the Nazi Holocaust by hiding in an attic, he said in Dunedin yesterday.

Prof Hoffmann (75), a leading theoretical chemist at Cornell University, New York, gave an open lecture titled ''All the Ways to Have a Bond'' at the University of Otago yesterday afternoon.

Earlier, he took part in an hour-long question-and-answer session with about 60 Otago postgraduate chemistry students, and discussed suffering and science communication in an interview.

Asked if his wartime experiences had remained influential, he said that having to hide in an attic for about 15 months had taught him, as a 5 to 7-year-old, ''to be quiet''. But it had not made him a ''better person''.

He had ''survived'' but the most important thing was to say ''never again''.

And he longed for a future without the ''terrible events'' that had occurred in many parts of the world during the 20th century.

He rejected any ''romantic'' suggestion that ''you're a better person because you suffered''.

''There are problems for those who survived.

''To this day, I'm afraid of people in uniform'' - even when the uniform was that of hotel staff, such as waiters.

That was because, as a child, he had known that people in uniforms had been ''after us, to kill us''.

He said the small town in Poland where he lived as a child, Zolochiv, was now part of the Ukraine and the attic where he hid with other Jewish family members was still there when he returned to see it in 2006. He urged Otago postgraduate chemistry students to ''reach out'' to help members of the public better understand chemistry.

''Part of a citizen's duty is to learn a little bit of science.''

In democracies, the community had to make science-related decisions, such as where rubbish plants would be sited, and knowing some science would help better decisions to be made.

Prof Hoffmann is also a published poet and playwright and remains alert to unexpected possibilities in language.

He joked that on one occasion, he had fallen asleep during a lengthy scientific seminar.

After waking, he had immediately noted an interesting phrase uttered by the speaker, and this had inspired a later poem.

• Prof Hoffmann received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1981, sharing it with Kenichi Fukui.

- john.gibb@odt.co.nz

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