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May 26, 2003
Volume 81, Number 21
CENEAR 81 21 pp. 32-33
ISSN 0009-2347

Now in its second year, Roald Hoffmann's cabaret act packs a basement on Cornelia Street


"I wanted to be an art history major, but I didn't have the courage," says Roald Hoffmann, Nobel Prize-winning Cornell University chemist and impresario of "Entertaining Science," a monthly evening of cabaret at the Cornelia Street Café in New York City. "I had the courage to tell my parents I didn't want to be a doctor, but I didn't have the courage to tell them I didn't want to be a scientist."


LA BOHÉME Hirsch (left) and Hoffmann at the Cornelia Street Café. PHOTO BY RICK MULLIN

A poet, playwright, and author, Hoffmann says he has moved through the worlds of science and art all his life. In fact, to him it is one world. The series at the Cornelia Street Café, he says, is partly a response to what he sees as an unhealthy modern perception that science and the humanities exist in mutually exclusive intellectual realms. Before the theories on the bicameral brain, Hoffmann says, no one questioned the connection between art and science. That connection still resides, he says, on the common ground of human creativity.

Earlier this year, Kenneth R. Jolls, professor of chemical engineering at Iowa State University, took his vibraphone to stake out common ground in New York City as part of Hoffmann's series. In a performance he called Good Vibrations, Jolls spoke to the audience about the physics of the vibraphone. What came across to Hoffmann, however, was Jolls's integral passion for music and science.

Getting before that audience is not an easy task: New York poets and musicians know the Café sets a high bar for getting on the bill at what is regarded as the closest thing to a 1950s-style Greenwich Village café in 21st century Greenwich Village. Hoffmann learned this when he and his friend K. C. Cole, a science writer for the Los Angeles Times, first tried to get a reading of Cole's book "The Hole in the Universe" at the café. They were told that the topic was fascinating, but that they were not famous enough. They came back with Oliver Sacks, the neurologist and author of popular books such as "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat." "Voila!" Hoffmann says, "now we were famous enough."

To a packed house in 2001, the threesome explored the topic of "nothing" from various angles. Robin Hirsch, one of the café's owners, took Hoffmann up on an offer to put together a monthly series of programs on the marriage of art and science. A year into it, "Entertaining Science" consistently packs the long, narrow, downstairs performance space. "It certainly looks like the Bohemian café of your dreams," says Hoffmann.

Hirsch, a playwright and theatrical producer, says science fits in nicely. "It's right in our bailiwick, because we have done extremely unusual things here," says Hirsch. "We've done everything from a recital of the entire 'Iliad' to stilt-walking to the first reading ever of the infamous 'Vagina Monologs.' What Roald proposed has become a wonderful microcosm of what we have practiced in our own wandering ways."

Aldous Huxley once said that science doesn't recognize "the things that make life worth living," such as beauty and love, because science deals only with things that can be measured. This is only partly true, in Hoffmann's estimation. "Measurement is important," he says. "Until Lavoisier introduced it, [chemistry] was not a science." But creation and discovery--basic to both art and science--rely on nonempirical thinking, he says.

Hoffmann says many artists were scared away from science at an early age, usually by mathematics. "But I find most artists are interested in things like order out of chaos, complexity, entropy, and fractals. These things have an easy cross-over," he says. "Chemists have a harder time. Imaginative thinking is downgraded or not fessed-up-to in chemistry, because it is not deductive." Hoffmann says that while many scientists he knows play musical instruments, few compose music.

Science, on the other hand, has an ironic affinity for post-modern art's tendency toward abstraction. New York University professor Nadrian Seeman's presentation on building unconventional structures out of DNA--a case in point--was last month's performance at "Entertaining Science." The art part was all about new ways of looking at shapes and colors. Chuck Close, a contemporary artist whose realist portraits look like piles of pop art hot dogs close up, would get the connections.

Other artists would cry foul. Seeman illustrates his structures with evocations of M.C. Escher and Rube Goldberg, not, say, paintings by Leonardo da Vinci or poems by William Blake. He admits that his work as a scientist is closer to graphic design than fine art.

"The mere fact that in a café in the Village, downstairs in the cabaret space on a given night, you might find Oliver Sacks or Benoit Mandelbrot is a very seductive and unusual thing."

Hoffmann says he liked connections that Seeman drew between the design of his "nanoscopic stick figures" and artifacts of premodern human civilization--bone piles in a Capuchin catacomb and Arabic mosaic work. "He probably doesn't do that in professional talks," Hoffmann says. "You could tune out the science and just get into the graphics and color."

That may be easier for Hoffman than it would be for other scientists. It is a matter of being attuned to the nonempirical ways of arriving at the essence of things. As he explains in an autobiographical essay at the Nobel Prize eMuseum: "I write poetry to penetrate the world around me, and to comprehend my reactions to it. One thing is certainly not true: that scientists have some greater insight into the workings of nature than poets."

Hoffmann, a Polish Holocaust survivor who came to New York in 1949, is an old-school New York Bohemian by temperament. "Entertaining Science," Hirsch says, tends to attract kindred souls. "It's an opportunity to be in the same room with people of great intellectual prowess who are not necessarily performing that night," says Hirsch. "The mere fact that in a café in the Village, downstairs in the cabaret space on a given night, you might find Oliver Sacks or Benoit Mandelbrot is a very seductive and unusual thing. The science night has managed to attract that kind of mind."


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Copyright © 2003 American Chemical Society

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