Roald Hoffmann and “The World of Chemistry”

Maybe some of you are familiar with the 1990 “The World of Chemistry” series of instructional videos. It’s a somewhat dated, somewhat dull, intro-to-chemistry series featuring chemist Roald Hoffmann as the narrator. Typically you see it in high school (I saw it at my local community college).

I’m a huge fan. The videos are utterly dorky, and I find the series irresistible for its awkward charm and nerdiness. If I could get the DVDs from my local video store, I would watch them all.

I didn’t know anything about Roald Hoffman until my chemistry instructor, no doubt wishing to help the class understand that Hoffman is much more than the uncomfortable narrator of an instructional video series, explained that Hoffman is a brilliant and important modern chemist. I had had no idea.

Despite his total shortcomings as a narrator, I love Hoffmann in the videos. He’s the antithesis of theatrical smarminess or intellectual superiority, and there is no condescension in his manner. As he narrates he varies his voice hardly at all, and comes off as a mannerly, gentle, and intelligent man completely at sea in the silliness of an American high school chemistry video. (In one episode, Hoffmann is outfitted in a Western-style cowboy dress shirt, complete with mother-of-pearl buttons. Note to the wardrobe person: One should never do this to a Cornell college professor outside of the geology department. It’s just not right.)

I looked Hoffmann up in Wikipedia and found out that he’s a Nobel Prize winner. And a poet. A published poet, with a passionate love of the natural world and a wonderful drive to bridge the distance between the arts and the world of science. You can read some of his poems on his website, roaldhoffmann.com.

Welcome, the greeting on his website reads, to Roald Hoffman’s land between chemistry, poetry and philosophy.

Here’s one of his poems.

FLUORITE

I was asked about my hobbies.
“Collecting minerals” I said and
stopped to think.
“Minerals in their matrix
are what I like best.”

Fluorite wears a variable habit.
Colorless when pure, it is vodka
in stone. More commonly
it brandishes shades of rose to blue,
occasional yellow. A specimen I have
tumbles in inch-long cubes,
superimposed, interpenetrating,
etched on all their faces.
The cubes have a palpable darkness,
a grainy darkness, texture
blacker than black.
Solid yet fragile, when held
up to the incandescence of light, the
darkness deposited in this ordered
atomic form a million years ago
allows some rays through.
But only on the thin edges,
in sinister violet.

Struck with a chisel and mallet,
unhesitatingly the cubes cleave
and octahedra emerge.
I have seen it done, but my hands tremble.
I know why it cleaves so,
but why destroy what took
centuries to grow, then
rested in the earth for millions,
in a cavelet, a cool fissure in the rock?

Eerie crystal.
Were a Martian photograph
enlarged to reveal such polyhedral
regularity, it would be deemed
intelligence at work. But
the only work here, and it is free
is that of entropy.

(Synthesis, Harvard University, Cambridge, 7, 46, No. 1 (1984); in revised form in The Sciences, 28, Sept. Oct., p. 30 (1988); in John C. Kotz and Keith F. Purcell, “Chemistry and Chemical Reactivity”, Saunders College Publishing, New York, 1991, p. 241.)

In closing, I’d like to point out that in my world, “dorky” and “nerdiness” are not negative adjectives or qualities. Nor are dorkiness and nerdiness qualities that I enjoy for the sake of making fun of them. Rather, they are qualities that I find pleasing, attractive, and deeply endearing. There’s something about the nerdy earnestness of “The World of Chemistry,” and of Dr. Hoffman, that just makes me smile. There’s a gentleness to that quality, and a sort of admirably stubborn ability to simply be oneself. One’s magnificently nerdy self.

4 responses to “Roald Hoffmann and “The World of Chemistry”

  1. You can see each and every one of these videos on demand (small screen) through the Wayne State University website.

  2. I tried to find these on WSU site with no luck–do you have the exact address? could you email it to me at jbtjx@yahoo.com. Thank you

  3. So true! I always smile when I see these videos, especially when Roald Hoffmann speaks.

  4. These videos are streamed free by Annenberg Learner. You can also buy copies of the DVDs: http://www.learner.org/resources/series61.html

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