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Two Lives

Scientists do any number of things, besides science

Roald Hoffmann


Ansgar and I continue to correspond. He sends me a detective story he has published, Ukrainische Verbindung (The Ukrainian Connection). In German such stories are called Krimis, for Kriminalromane. The story, quite an exciting one, begins in a German paint factory, and part of the action takes place in the Ukrainian city of L’viv. Another connection, for I was born in Zloczów, some 60 kilometers from L’viv! My father had gone to the Lwów Polytechnic University, as it was called in Polish days. Earlier, during the Austro-Hungarian days, L’viv was Lemberg. A crossroads of the world it was, our historic region of Galicia. And it was also a place for waves of ethnic cleansing.

One day in 2002 Ansgar comes to visit. He is spending a month in a lab at the State University of New York at Buffalo, practically next door. Only snow divides us. He is a young man in his mid-30s, with what I might call a Ringo Starr haircut. He has an easy smile, a gentle voice, and is unnecessarily timid about his more-than-adequate English. True, he is in a minority of German scientists who have not done a postdoctoral year in the United States. The center shifts; there was once a time when every U.S. chemist went to Germany; now they come here. Twenty-two German postdoctoral associates—or postdocs—have spent a year or more in my group.

Ansgar gives a lecture about his work. The talk is not about what he did his doctoral research on, but what he does now, crystallography. I know about crystallography by “osmosis” because I got my Ph.D. in the lab of a great crystallographer, William N. Lipscomb. I did not do crystallography; I was simply in daily contact with clever people who were learning and practicing the technique. I also knew of it out of necessity, because in my work as a theoretician explaining molecular shape, I have had to make judgments as to which seeming structural anomalies are worth pursuing, and which are to be disbelieved.

What I will say next about crystallography is not anything a crystallographer would say. When the experimental technique was difficult and a crystal structure took a year to do, there was no problem; everyone wanted to have a crystallographer friend. As crystallography became easier, an almost routine technique, the field went in search of a raison d’être. Some practitioners took on complexity—proteins, for instance. Others looked at large groups of molecules for trends and regularities (these researchers I especially value; I have written previously about them (“Crystal Cloudy, Crystal Clear,” American Scientist 86[1]:15–18, January–February 1998). Such crystallographers do just what I did in my theoretical work. Still others got the technique better and better, so that they could see not just where are the atomic nuclei and electrons near them, but also where in space reside the chemically important electrons involved in bonding and reactivity. Such a direction brings this subset of crystallographers in contact with theoreticians, who compute such things.

This is exactly the research being done both in Ansgar’s group in Berlin and in the one he is visiting in Buffalo. For my own prejudiced reasons I’m not too crazy about the work, but I won’t bore you with my prejudices. Suffice to say that when Ansgar visits Cornell, I give my guest a politely hard time during his seminar. He handles it well, as he does a pretty disconnected set of questions from the only two professors who find time to come to his talk, one of two that day, six that week. The rest of the audience is students who, as usual, sit quietly.

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