Roald Hoffmann was born Roald Safran in Złoczów, Poland, in 1937. When the Nazi Wehrmacht reached Złoczów in 1941, Roald’s family went into hiding, then into a labor camp. His father bribed the guards to allow Roald, his mother, and several other family members to leave, but was himself executed soon after. Roald’s family spent the remainder of the war in hiding. The family then moved to Krakow, Roald’s mother remarried, and they acquired the surname Hoffmann from bought identity papers they used to emigrate to Prague and, eventually, to the United States.
After graduating from Stuyvesant High School and completing his bachelor’s degree at the Columbia University, Hoffmann went to Harvard University for a graduate program in chemical physics, planning to work with William E. Moffitt. Moffitt’s death led Hoffmann to Martin Gouterman, then to William Lipscomb. His PhD in theoretical chemistry focused on boron hydrides. During a Junior Fellowship at Harvard, he applied the extended Hückel method he had developed for the boron hydride calculations to organic molecules. In 1965, Hoffmann took up a faculty position at Cornell University. He describes the role of computers in his work, both at Harvard and at Cornell, his approach to establishing and leading a research group, his interactions with colleagues, his collaborations with R. B. Woodward, and the experience and impact of winning the Nobel Prize. He also discusses his writing projects, which include poetry, plays—including Oxygen, which he cowrote with Carl Djerassi—and popular works exploring science and religion. Throughout the discussion, Hoffmann returns to the themes of building bridges between branches of chemistry, between chemistry and physics, between science and the humanities, and between academia and the public.