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HOME > PAST ISSUE > March-April 2010 > Article Detail

MARGINALIA

Two Lives

Scientists do any number of things, besides science

Roald Hoffmann

Angels in Germany

2010-03MargHoffmannFF.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageWe go back to my office after dinner. There is an angel to be found, a sick student to worry about, and a lecture to write.

The angel: Carl Djerassi and I have written a play, Oxygen, which had its German premiere the previous year in Würzburg. Ansgar describes his visit to the play:

I arrived there just after you left, on Tuesday. The officials told me tickets were gone—no chance to get one. So I went to the box office in the theatre and got the same answer: no chance—sold out. But I stayed there, maybe about ten minutes, and a blond-haired angel appeared. She asked, “Do you want a ticket?” I said, “Thank you, you’re an angel.” She then said with a smile that I would meet her that night—and she was a quite attractive person. At night, shortly before the performance started, I looked around in the auditorium for the angel. I saw Carl Djerassi (my first impression of him: a Hemingway of science) who was some seats behind me. The performance began and I recognized my angel: She was playing Madame Lavoisier.

I must say that when I first came across the word angel in his email, I thought of another angel, one in Berlin: The angel who becomes a man in Wim Wenders’s classic dramatic film Wings of Desire, in order to experience human love and emotion.

Ansgar’s angel was female. I knew her, but I did not know her address or contact information. But I was sure that the director of the Würzburg production would be able to put the young people in touch. How could an angel not be in favor of love?

When Ansgar comes into my office before dinner, a Cornell police officer is there talking to me. A former student of mine has had psychological problems for a while. Troubled communications from him had crossed a line the day before; a threat was made. The police officer is there to talk about it. This also is a part of my life. Maybe it will find its way into Ansgar’s next Krimi.

We talk into the night, of Hans Bethe and his father-in-law P. P. Ewald, one of the great figures in crystallography. Also of Hans Hellmann, perhaps the first German theoretical chemist, who was executed in the Soviet Union in 1938 (that’s another story). And of that strange structure again.

But I have to send Ansgar home to his hotel. For the next morning, there is a class to be taught—a “World of Chemistry” general-education course, science for the citizen. The class tells young people about chemistry, its connections to culture, how chemists think. I should have told them Ansgar’s story. But I didn’t have the courage; I spoke of water instead.

©Roald Hoffman

Acknowledgement

I am grateful to Ansgar Bach for telling me his story, to him and Hans Hartl for allowing me to quote from their correspondence, and to Beate Flemmig for the calculations mentioned in the text.

Bibliography

  • Literarisch Reisen. www.literarisch-reisen.de





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