I can't think of a worse place for a poetry reading than the dreaded Room 14, the venue for yesterday's session on "Poetry and Science." A flimsy plastic door and curtain were all that stood between the science-poets and the roar of the crowd at the tapas bar and exhibition stands just outside. The audience leaned forward to hear, grimacing as a string of announcements blared over loudspeakers outside. But just as I was cursing ESOF and about to give up on the session, Roald Hoffmann rose to the challenge. Within a minute he made the noise melt away--I knew I had to stay.
It's not just that Hoffmann is a talented poet, though he certainly is. It's that he is at least as gifted a scientist. (He won the 1981 Nobel chemistry prize and now teaches at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.) The first that he read to us was about solitons, a strange and very rare form of wave that carries energy across great distances with almost no loss of energy. Within the poem was a slyly hidden statement about human relationships. It's a very rare poet indeed who can draw on such a deep understanding of science.
The most haunting poem that Hoffmann, now 71, shared with us has never been published. "Nature commissioned me to write it in 2003 for the 50th anniversary of the discovery of DNA," he said. The result was a poem titled CODE, MEMORY. "They rejected it," he added with an ironic smile. I can see why the Nature editors might have been scared away. It's not a simple poem, neither in structure nor mood. Layered in are references to Nabokov, evolution, Mendel, genetics, and genocide. (As a boy in Złoczów, Poland, Hoffmann narrowly escaped the Holocaust; most of his immediate family were murdered.)
After the session, I asked Hoffmann if Science could have the honor of publishing the poem online here. He agreed and we present it below (And in case your blog reader disrupts the formatting of the stanzas, we offer a PDF version).