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Two Lives

Scientists do any number of things, besides science

Roald Hoffmann

I meet Ansgar Bach first through his writing. He sends me an endearing account, in German (which I can read, because I was once a refugee in post-World War II Germany), of a trip he took to New York. In the middle of the 47th Street Diamond District, Ansgar spots an oasis (sadly gone today): The Gotham Bookmart. In it he finds my second poetry collection, Gaps and Verges, signed. The bookstore sign says “Wise men fish here.” Ansgar fishes, writes about it, sends me what he writes and catches a new friend.

2010-03MargHoffmannFA.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageBooks mean much to Ansgar. I discover that when I do what can only be done today, an Internet search on his name. From the many sons of Bach and still more Bach festivals, I excavate an interesting fact: He is an unusual chemist. For although he does at this time have an institutional affiliation—the Department of Chemistry at the Free University of Berlin—he also runs a small business: Literarisch Reisen. The phrase is resonant; in one sense it means “Travel in Literary Fashion.” And indeed Bach’s firm organizes excursions in his region of Germany that follow the footsteps of Thomas Mann or visit the sites of a series of stories by E.T.A. Hoffmann or Heinrich Heine. Very German. Very literary. And most unlike what chemists do.

Ansgar is on a path quite different from that of most academic scientists. Like him, like many other scientists, I have wide-ranging interests that include literature and art. But can one professionally embrace those multiple interests? Can one successfully pursue scientific research only on a part-time basis, with the rest of one’s attention focused elsewhere, no matter how gripping or worthwhile the other pursuits might be?

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