The Tense Middle Nobel Prize-winning chemist Roald Hoffmann believes the middle is a good place to be. It reminds the Cornell professor of the choices we can make in life and helps him see the possibility for change.

The Tense Middle

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(Soundbite of This I Believe intro)


On Monday's we bring you This I Believe. Today we hear from a professor at Cornell University. Roald Hoffman is a chemist and a Nobel Prize winner. He is also a poet and a playwright. Here is our series curator independent producer Jay Alison.

JAY ALISON reporting:

Roald Hoffman shared the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1981, perhaps the ultimate reward for years spent in research. Yet he says that building a career in poetry is much harder than in science. Strattling two worlds is comfortable for Hoffman. In fact, that position, in between, that's where he finds his own center.

Here is Roald Hoffman with his essay for This I Believe.

Professor ROALD HOFFMAN (Cornell University): I believe in the middle. Extremes may make a good story, but the middle satisfies me. Why? Perhaps because I'm a chemist. Chemistry is substances, molecules and their transformations. And molecules fight categorization. They are poised along several polarities. Harm and benefit is one.

Take morphine. Anyone who has had an operation knows what morphine is good for. But it's also a deadly addictive drug. Take ozone. Up in the atmosphere a layer of ozone protects us from the harmful, ultraviolet radiation of our life-giving sun. But at sea level, ozone is produced in photochemical smog. It chews up tires and lungs.

Chemistry, like life, is deeply and fundamentally about change. It's about substances, say A and B, transforming, becoming a different substance, C and D, and coming back again. At equilibrium, the middle, all substances are present, but we're not stuck there. We can change the middle. We can disturb the equilibrium.

Perhaps I like the middle, that tense middle, because of my background. I was born in 1937, in Southeast Poland, now Ukraine. Our Jewish family was trapped in the destructive machinery of Nazi anti-Semitism. Most of us perished, my father, three of four grandparents, and so on. My mother and I survived, hidden for the last 15 months of the war in a schoolhouse attic by a Ukrainian teacher, Mikola Duke(ph).

We were saved by the action of a good man, that school teacher. Sad to say, much of the Ukrainian population in the region behaved badly in those terrible times. They helped the Nazis kill us, and yet, and yet some, like Duke, saved us, at great risk to their lives.

I couldn't formulate it then, as a child. But I knew from our experience that people were not simply good or evil. They made choices. You could hide a Jewish family, or you could choose not to. Every human being has the potential to go one way or the other. Understanding that there was a choice helps me live with the evil that I experienced.

Being a chemist has helped me to see plainly that things - politics, attitudes, molecules - in the middle can be changed, that we have a choice. Being a survivor, I can see that choices really matter, all part of this risky enterprise of being human.

The middle is not static. My psychological middle, as well as the chemical equilibrium, I like that. Yes, of course I also want stability. But I believe that extreme positions, the things you start out with in the chemical reactions, the things you finish with, all people A) bad, all people B) good, no taxes at all, taxed to death - all of these are impractical, unnatural, boring, the refuge of people who never want to change. The world is not simple, though God knows political forces on every side want to make it so.

I like the tense middle, and I am grateful for a life that offers me the potential for change.

ALLISON: Roald Hoffman with his essay for This I Believe.

Hoffman notes that some people think scientists possess some inner knowledge that is mysterious to the rest of us. But he says it is poetry that quote "soars all around the tangible." That is also the terrain of belief, and we invite you to consider your own, and perhaps write for our series.

To find out more, visit our Website, For This I Believe, I'm Jay Allison.

NEARY: Next Monday on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, a This I Believe essay from public radio listener Cynthia Summer(ph), of Sacramento, California. She was raised to believe in dreams, went off to get an MBA, and has returned to a belief in intuition.

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