Борис Бурда
Author: Boris Burda
Журналист, писатель, бард. Обладатель «Бриллиантовой совы» интеллектуальной игры «Что? Где? Когда?»
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ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Roald Hoffmann from Lviv region – Nobel Prize Laureate in Chemistry

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Roald Hoffmann from Lviv region - Nobel Prize Laureate in Chemistry
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Usually, each nation has its own set of names, which are customary to give to newborns from their grandfathers-great-grandfathers. Some of them have a common origin (for example, the names of saints among the Christian peoples), but everywhere they sound a little different, like John, Johann and Jean.

However, sometimes a name becomes popular all over the world at once – usually this is a consequence of the world fame of some of its bearers. If the newspapers widely enough spread the name around the planet, it can be given to a child even in the Dominican Republic, even in Burkina Faso.

Have you heard of the British writer Roald Dahl, the creator of the legends about the gremlins, friend and screenwriter Ian Fleming, and the author of the plot of the films Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Four Rooms? He got his name in honor of Roald Amundsen, the conqueror of the South Pole.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Roald Hoffmann from Lviv region - Nobel Prize Laureate in Chemistry
Roald Amundsen/wikipedia.org

The glory of this hero-traveler was so great that not only the writer was named after him. The child of an engineer from the city of Zlochuv (now Zolochev, Lviv region), Hillel Safran and his wife, the teacher Klara Rosen, was also named by Roald in honor of Amundsen.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Roald Hoffmann from Lviv region - Nobel Prize Laureate in Chemistry
Zolochev Castle/lviv-region.travel




Hillel Safran graduated from the Faculty of Civil Engineering in Lviv on a quota for Jewish students – it turns out that there was such a thing, and although they were treated so-so, there was an opportunity to get an education. Recently, his son found his autobiography in the archives of the Lviv Polytechnic.

1937 was not an easy time to be born in those places. First, Zolochev became Soviet – after many years Roald recalled: “We did not want to live under an endlessly perverted communism”. But soon the Germans came, with whom the Jews could not live at all.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Roald Hoffmann from Lviv region - Nobel Prize Laureate in Chemistry
Roald Hoffman aged 1 with his father, Hillel Safran, 1938/ukrainian.voanews.com

Safran’s family ended up in a ghetto, in which it was problematic to survive and few succeeded. Then they were transferred to a “labor camp” – the same ghetto, where they were also forced to work for the Germans. There were no chances to survive there – when the work was not needed, they would get rid of the workers.

Hillel Safran realizes that his family’s last chance for survival is to escape. And he did the almost impossible – he took his family (and not only his) out of the camp. He knew that he was risking his life, and, unfortunately, it happened – the Germans accused him of organizing a mass escape and shot him.

The director of the school in the village of Univ Mykola Dyuk (or Dzyuk – where they say) saved the lives of the fugitives – he hid them in the attic of the school. Roald later recalled that he was five and a half when he and his mother climbed into the attic, and full seven when they came down from there. Later, Roald insisted on declaring Dzyuk and his wife Maria the Righteous of the World.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Roald Hoffmann from Lviv region - Nobel Prize Laureate in Chemistry
Mykola and Maria Dzyuk/ukrainian.voanews.com




Roald and his mother managed to wait for the escape of the Germans and not get caught by them. “The Red Army freed us from the crazy and brutal Nazi rule, we owe it our lives,” he later said. But he could not trust anyone unconditionally – there was already experience …

Therefore, when a significant part of the population of those places was resettled to Poland, his family did not shy away from this – they rather hurried up to get into the relevant lists. And in Poland, his mother remarried, and his stepfather’s surname, Hoffman, became the surname for Roald as well.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Roald Hoffmann from Lviv region - Nobel Prize Laureate in Chemistry
Roald Hoffman and his mother Klara in Warsaw in 1945/www.ukrweekly.com

A mother’s new marriage is always a lottery for her son, but Roald got the lucky ticket. Pavel Hoffman turned out to be both a good husband and a wonderful stepfather, his relationship with his stepson was good all his life, and he died two days before Roald received the Nobel Prize.

From Poland, they managed to move first to Czechoslovakia, and from it to the camp of displaced persons in Bindermichl in Austria – also in the Soviet zone of occupation, but no longer in the socialist country. From there it was already easier to move to such a camp in Germany, and from Germany to go to the USA.




I won’t say right off the bat how Roald Hoffman’s parents got not so easy permission to immigrate to the United States, but for an eleven-year-old capable child who very quickly learned English, which became the sixth language he knew, it was a blessing.

He managed, although not immediately, to find the Stuyvesant school worthy of his abilities, which is considered one of the outstanding schools in New York, giving a lot to children inclined to study science, and not only to them – among its graduates were prominent lawyers, historians, writers …

The main problem that prevented Roald Hoffman from choosing his vocation was rather the difficulty from the richness of choice – he showed too many-sided abilities, and not only in natural sciences, but also in the humanities, not to mention success in creativity.

He also hesitated at Columbia University, where he studied medicine. He wrote: “The world that opened up non-science courses for me is what I remember best of my days at Columbia College. I almost switched to the history of art”.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Roald Hoffmann from Lviv region - Nobel Prize Laureate in Chemistry
Columbia University/prabook.com




Hoffman eventually departed from medicine, although not entirely – the branch of science he chose, chemistry, has a lot to do with medicine. While still a student, he worked at the US National Bureau of Standards, and after graduating from the university, went to graduate school at Harvard.

Having finally decided on chemistry as his main interest, he received a scholarship from the Loudin Quantum Chemistry Group in Uppsala a year later to attend a summer school. It was held on the cozy island of Lidingö, located near Stockholm.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Roald Hoffmann from Lviv region - Nobel Prize Laureate in Chemistry
island of Lidingö/incomartour.com.ua

Hoffman met there Eva Börjesson, who worked in the school reception, and this meeting did not go unnoticed for him. Returning home to the United States, he took with him not only the baggage of the knowledge he had learned at school, but also the future wife. They got married a year later.

Hoffman believes that he was an obedient teenager and never rebelled against his parents, but after 23 years he started to rebel. He considered the first rebellious act to marry Eve, who categorically did not like his parents. And then he created a little thing and much more unexpected …




Even marriage with a chosen one who was not agreed with the parents (if you wait for their approval, you may not marry at all) faded before his decision to go with his wife for an academic internship in the USSR. “You were born on the territory of the USSR, they will take you into the army there!” – the mother panicked.

But Hoffman, who became a US citizen back in 1955, considered himself sufficiently protected and boldly flew with his wife to Moscow, successfully worked with the prominent scientist Alexander Davydov (Hoffman noted his Ukrainian origin), and even learned Russian.

When the journalist asked Hoffman why he did not stay in the USSR, he replied: “If I had any socialist views before the trip, then I completely changed them during the year of my life there, in the Soviet Union! Because I saw the corrupt nature of communism and sheer poverty”.

He recalled: “During the year, the only people who invited us to their dorm rooms were Georgians, Armenians and students from Asia – only they were not afraid. The Russians are also hospitable, but they feared that after that the KGB would do something to them”. It was 1960 …

In his opinion, the level of theoretical work in the USSR was high (the presence of such leaders as Landau and Kapitsa affected), but the equipment for experiments in the United States was much better. The point, as he believed, was not about money – there is not enough money for research for everyone and always.


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Returning from the USSR to the United States, Roald and Eva, among other things, began to strengthen their family who had survived a difficult journey. In 1962, they had a son, who was given the name Hillel Yan (in honor of his deceased father), and in 1965, a daughter, who was named Ingrid Elena.

Choosing a new scientific director, he came to the renowned chemist William Nunn Lipscomb. Did he know the rule that the one whose supervisor has already received it has the greatest chances of winning the Nobel Prize? Anyway, Lipscomb got it later …

Hoffman defended his doctoral dissertation and began to work at Harvard as an assistant to Dr. Robert Woodward, already in 1965, became a Nobeliate (so far everything converges). Very soon they together formulated an important statement, later called the Woodward-Hoffman rule.

What does this rule give? Hoffman explains: “Quite simply, we took some ideas from physics to chemistry and applied them to organic reactions to make it easier to create some molecules”. He said that Woodward came up with the idea, and he found a calculation method, after which they came up with a theoretical explanation of it together.




When this idea came up, Hoffman was 31 years old. For a scientist – youth. And he received real scientific recognition of the importance of his discovery, the Nobel Prize, only 13 years later. Long? Probably not – receiving this award at only 44 years old is rather a rarity, it’s very fast.

Hoffman found out about this by fixing a punctured bicycle wheel in his garage. It was only nine in the morning, and suddenly he heard the news on the radio. He immediately ran home, picked up the phone and called his mother. In his opinion, this is what anyone wants to do when something like this happens to him.

He did not share the prize with Woodward – he died two years before, and the Nobel Prize is awarded only to the living. Together with him, the Japanese Kenichi Fukui received the award, who did the same job using a different approach. When spring comes, all the swallows come at once …

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Roald Hoffmann from Lviv region - Nobel Prize Laureate in Chemistry
Hoffman awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry/ukrainian.voanews.com

Having become a nobelist at a relatively young age, Hoffman continues to work productively in science now, when he is in his 80s. Back in 1965, he became a professor at Cornell University and still lives in Ithaca, where this educational institution is located, and teaches there.




But Hoffman’s work was never limited to his scientific work. He never stopped writing poetry, plays, creating philosophical treatises. This did not remain an insignificant hobby for him – he tried, as in everything in life, to reach a truly high level.

Five of his poetry collections have already been published in the USA – The Metamict State (1987), Gaps and Verges (1990), Memory Effects (1999), Soliton (2002), Catalista (2002). In 2011, translations of Hoffman’s poetry were published as a separate book in Russia. There are also Ukrainian translations of his poems.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Roald Hoffmann from Lviv region - Nobel Prize Laureate in Chemistry
Collection of poems by Hoffman/labirint.ru

Hoffman’s play Oxygen has been shown in theaters in the United States, Great Britain and Germany, and has been published in English, German, French, Chinese, Korean, Portuguese and Spanish. His second play “Should’ve” has been translated into Italian, German and Russian.

In 1995, the work The Same and Not the Same was published, which tells about the duality of chemistry. It has been translated into Korean, Spanish, Russian, Italian, German, and Chinese. In 2001, the publishing house Mir published a translation of this book into Russian under the title Such the same and different world.




Hoffman became an American – no doubt about it. Does he remember that he is also Ukrainian by birth? He remembers, and it is impossible to doubt it. He visited Ukraine twice during the USSR and three times during independence. True, he was not allowed in his native Zolochev under the USSR, and now there is no problem with that.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Roald Hoffmann from Lviv region - Nobel Prize Laureate in Chemistry
Hoffman with his wife in Univ

He supported the mayor of Zolochev Grinkiv in the local elections. According to Hoffman, who was born in Zolochev in 1937, under the leadership of Grinkiv, the city has noticeably changed for the better, and he was convinced of this personally during his visits – there were three of them, there was an opportunity to compare …

In one of his interviews, he said: “When I finally got into independent Ukraine, I saw progress, despite the country’s limited resources. The economic situation leaves a lot to be desired, but the people were very friendly and overall I got hope”.

Hoffman called on Western scientists to help colleagues in the former USSR for the common future of science. In 2013, he signed an appeal from the academic community in support of Euromaidan, and he is still in correspondence with fellow countrymen from Zolochev and Ternopil. He remembers where he was born.




Are there many Nobeliates in general having ties with Ukraine in their biography? The number of laureates of the award born in Ukraine is not even double-digit, and there is no great hope for positive changes. The Nobelist, who comes from our country, is a prominent figure. Is that so or not?

Something does not seem like – strong attention, despite all the sympathy for the homeland, Hoffman is not pampered. True, in 2017, the post of Ukraine issued a stamp dedicated to Hoffman. Not bad for a start, but, frankly, quite modest so far … But inexpensive – only 5 UAH.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Roald Hoffmann from Lviv region - Nobel Prize Laureate in Chemistry
Mark with Hoffman/wikipedia.org

That’s how we economical … The list of Hoffman awards and prizes in Wikipedia is huge – there are more than thirty of them. Most of all from America, there are gold medals from the USSR, and even from Russia, and nothing from Ukraine! Surely we are saving the sovereign penny …

Is this right? Hoffman does not need these awards – his attitude towards his native country clearly does not depend on them. All the same, Hoffman says about it: “Ukraine, the promised land of my heart” – will he say more if we somehow honor him? No – well then why?

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