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This Nobel Laureate Considers Faith and Science at a Snail's Pace

January 31, 2008 By:
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Roald Hoffmann

In many respects, Roald Hoffmann, a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry and a Holocaust survivor, could be said to view scientific inquiry through a spiritual lens. At the same time, he's been known to examine religion with a microscopic exactitude.

During a recent speech and subsequent interview, the co-author of Old Wine New Flasks: Reflections on Science and Jewish Tradition, repeatedly invoked the words "faith" and "spiritual" when describing the wonder of seeing a natural chemical or physical process at work.

"I'm an unusual scientist in the sense that while I am an atheist, I have a lot of respect for religion and ritual," said Hoffmann, 70, at the start of the Jan. 27 talk at Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen. The speech came two days after he addressed students and teachers at Upper Dublin High School in Fort Washington.

In a subsequent interview, Hoffmann added that religion "comes out of the same roots as science. Both are an attempt to understand the world around you. I think I understand the necessity for both."

He lamented the fact that due to the success of books such as The God Delusion by British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, the public perception of scientists is that they're all out to discredit the merits of religion.

Hoffmann, the son of what he called "socialist Zionists," was born in 1937 in the town of Zloczow, then in Poland and now called Zolochiv in present-day Ukraine. In 1942, after the Nazis arrived, he and his parents were forcibly moved to the Jewish ghetto in that city, and were later sent to a labor camp called Lacke.

In 1943, his father, Hillel Safran, managed to smuggle his wife and son out of the camp. He was killed later that year after an escape attempt, according to Hoffmann. For more than a year, Hoffmann, his mother, Clara Safran, and several other family members, were hidden in a schoolhouse by a Ukrainian named Igor Dyuk, said Hillel Hoffmann, the chemist's son and a spokesperson for Temple University.

After the war, Clara Safran married a man named Paul Hoffmann, who adopted the young Roald.

A writer of several books of poetry, Hoffmann has tackled his Holocaust experiences most directly through verse, according to his son.

The family arrived in New York City in 1948. While he was pressured to become a medical doctor -- or "real doctor," as he put it -- Hoffmann pursued what he called "applied theoretical chemistry." His research has included the "electronic structure of stable and unstable molecules." In 1981, he shared the Nobel Prize with Japanese chemist Kenichi Fukui.

"The Nobel Prize has only been an unmitigated good for my mother and for my university," quipped Hoffmann, adding that he felt it largely an honor of chance that could have been bestowed on dozens of other scientists.

In his Beth Or speech, the Cornell University professor focused on one passage from the book of Numbers that has captured his imagination, and led him on an intellectual journey that moved from faith and commerce in antiquity to cutting-edge biochemistry.

In Numbers 15:38, God tells Moses to "speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner."

Dying to Uncover the Source

He pointed out that today -- and for much of Jewish history -- the fringes on tzitzit are white, which on the face of it constitutes a seeming violation of the Torah. How did this come about?

In biblical times, a blue dye known in Hebrew as tekhelet was created from a particular species of Mediterranean snail, which secreted the color as a by-product or an organic chemical reaction.

According to Hoffmann, snail dyes were used to color clothing throughout the ancient Near East, and were often considered a status symbol.

He said that rabbinic sources prohibited the use of blue plant dyes on tzitzit, even though it could produce a similar result. Only the snail dye would suffice, even though it's not considered kosher to consume the mollusk.

(Hoffmann's interest in dye-making stems from a fascination with "proto-chemistry," which he defines as people engaged in chemistry without being chemists or having any knowledge of molecular structures.)

He explained that around the year 600 C.E., as the Jewish community grew more and more dispersed, the knowledge of how to produce the blue dye became lost.

Hoffmann said that biologists believe they've discovered the exact source of the ancient dye, but disagreement exists among religious authorities as to whether or not tzitzit should now be worn with tekhelet, which are more costly.

So, in going back to the basics, with all of Hoffmann's innate respect for Judaism, why has he eschewed a belief in God?

Simple, he replied.

The problem is that he is as moved by rituals from other traditions -- including Afro-Brazilia -- as he is by "what goes on in synagogue."

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