Scientist with a human face

The Nobel prizewinner Roald Hoffman asks for a truce between the world of science and today's well-informed public.

Many scientists groan when their work attracts the criticism of a public that often lacks the basic scientific knowledge to comprehend it. But not Roald Hoffmann, professor of chemistry at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

"The issues are ethical. They [the public] don't need to be terribly informed. They can debate a cloned sheep," he says, referring to last month's announcement of Dolly, cloned from an adult sheep, in the world's media.

"Genetically engineering a cloned sheep to me is not ethically neutral," he maintains. As for the scientists who made the breakthrough: "They'd better worry about the consequences. I am glad we live in a time when science raises ethical questions. It argues directly with the 'fact' that science is ethically neutral. And if you think only biology does it, then you're crazy. All of science does."

During the First World War, it was the chemists who drew fire. The German scientist Fritz Haber put bread into people's mouths when he discovered a way to convert nitrogen from the atmosphere into ammonia for fertilisers. But he also oversaw the use of chlorine gas to kill enemy troops.

The next war turned the spotlight on the physicists who developed the atomic bomb. Now it is the biologists' turn.

Hoffmann believes that "the public is more sensitised to environmental questions and questions of reproductive technology and genetic engineering". Sensitised maybe, but still ill-informed, the experts would counter. Still, Hoffmann upholds the public's right to argue, and exhibits a refreshing humility about science's role in the community. His latest book, The Same and Not the Same, embraces the wider world rather than pitching science against it. "My general outlook is that science is firmly embedded in culture," he says. "I really believe there is something that our colleagues in the arts and humanities have learned, and that we can learn from them."

Hoffmann was born in what is now part of Ukraine. At the age of four, he was sent with his family to a Nazi labour camp. His father was executed for trying to escape. Roald and his mother were smuggled out after two years and spent a further year hiding in a school attic until they were liberated by Soviet forces. After the war, they emigrated to the US.

It was in the Sixties that Hoffmann did his most important work, collaborating with Robert Woodward and using ideas from quantum theory to determine whether certain reactions in organic chemistry would go or not. The Woodward- Hoffmann "rules" became indispensable to synthetic chemists, and won Hoffmann the Nobel prize in 1981.

Since then he has written a number of books that set science, and his own science of chemistry in particular, into a broad cultural context. The Same and Not the Same takes chirality - the existence of left-handed and right-handed versions of what are otherwise the same molecules - as its motif, a metaphor for identity conflict in humans, from Haber, giver and taker of life, to ourselves in our reluctant embrace of technology. "That a reasonable human being can be ambivalent about chemicals, seeing in them both harm and benefit, is not a sign of irrationality but of humanity," he writes. "Utility and danger are two poles of a duality .... The tension of asking the question ['Can it help me?'/'Can it hurt me?'] and struggling with the answer links the material and spiritual worlds."

It's all a long way from some British popularisers who seem as keen to mock our readiness to follow what is not scientific, as to increase our understanding. Peter Atkins attacks religion; Lewis Wolpert has a problem with "arty-babble"; Richard Dawkins even takes offence at The X Files.

"I do stand in some contrast with them," admits Hoffmann, whose next book he describes as "a non-confrontational look" at science and religion. "I think scientists are tilting at the wrong windmills here. These are human things which aren't going to go away. Human beings are very nicely of two minds: they accept the rational definitions, but they also believe in other things in some aspects of their life, and they switch between the two."

As for the two-cultures problem: "The synthesis of molecules puts chemistry very close to the arts," Hoffmann writes. Perhaps it is true that, as Rutherford remarked, somebody else would have discovered the electron soon enough had JJ Thomson not discovered it, 100 years ago this month. But competing groups of chemists have achieved the synthesis of new substances such as immunosuppressants, important in transplant surgery, by essentially creative means that take very different paths.

By insisting on a distinction between science and technology, Wolpert also takes scientists "out of the loop" once their discoveries are put to use. For Hoffmann, discovery and application are closely related. If scientists are prepared to take the credit for success, then they must also share the blame for mistakes such as thalidomide or Bhopal.

In his Consumer's Good Chemical Guide, John Emsley is scornful of those who seek out the "natural" in favour of the "chemical," when there may be no essential difference between the two. Hoffmann understands their search. He explains why we prefer the natural in clothing: it gives us a precious feeling of individualism, knowing that no two garments are absolutely identical.

When the actress Meryl Streep protested about apples treated with the growth-regulating chemical Alar, many American scientists pooh-poohed her concern. Not Hoffmann. He, too, was shocked to learn about the practice - and still more so to find that he knew nothing about it. The episode prompted him to observe that we have slipped, apparently without realising it, from washing produce to rid it of bugs and dirt, to washing it to cleanse it of chemical residues.

Today, we see the same battle lines being drawn in the debate over genetically altered soya and corn. Consumers, for the most part ignorant but concerned, mistrust the way they see things going. Scientists, knowledgeable but insensitive, blithely assure us that all is well. So it may be. But people will continue to worry. Hoffmann believes scientists should learn to accept this. Our psychological reasons for preferring the "natural" may be as strong in their own way as any rational justification for artificial alternatives.

To take an extreme example, chemists often argue that "chemical" warfare is no more repulsive than other forms. It's simply a poor choice between one element or another, they reason. Death by chlorine is no worse than death by a lead bullet. But Hoffmann agrees with ethicists that chemical warfare is worse, "Something in the psyche, something deep that associates life with breath, is perturbed," he writes, citing Wilfred Owen's poem, "Dulce et Decorum Est", to underline the point.

'The Same and Not the Same' is published this month in paperback by Columbia University Press

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
Life and Style
Apple showed no sign of losing its talent for product launches with the new, slightly larger iPhone 6 making headlines
techSecurity breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
peopleDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
tvReview: Top Gear team flee Patagonia as Christmas special reaches its climax in the style of Butch and Sundance
Ashley Barnes of Burnley scores their second goal
footballMan City vs Burnley match report
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca alongside Harrison Ford's Han Solo in 'Star Wars'
Arts and Entertainment
Man of action: Christian Bale stars in Exodus: Gods and Kings
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Tracy Emin's 1998 piece 'My Bed' on display at Christie's
artOne expert claims she did not
Ernesto Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, right, met at Havana Golf Club in 1962 to mock the game
newsFidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
Hackers revealed Oscar-winning actress Lawrence was paid less than her male co-stars in American Hustle
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Robin van Persie is blocked by Hugo Lloris
footballTottenham vs Manchester United match report
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Manager

£32000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Manager is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Panel & Cabinet Wireman

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Panel Wireman required for small electro...

Recruitment Genius: Electronics Test Engineer

£25000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SME based in East Cheshire, ...

Day In a Page

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

Homeless Veterans appeal

Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

Scarred by the bell

The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

The Locked Room Mysteries

As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

How I made myself Keane

Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

Wear in review

A look back at fashion in 2014
Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

Might just one of them happen?
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?