By Carina Sorrentino
Each year Union invites two Common Curriculum speakers on campus to share their experiences and connection with the liberal arts. This term’s speaker was Roald Hoffmann, a native of Poland who came to the United States in 1949 to study chemistry at Columbia and Harvard. In 1981, he received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, and, beyond his scientific success, has written several books, plays and poems.
When the scholar took the stage in the Nott Memorial, he was soft-spoken and humorous in delivering his presentation, “Indigo: A Tale of Craft, Religion, History, Science and Culture.” Hoffmann described the intricate symbolism of the color pigment indigo in the cultures of the Mayans, Japanese, African and Jewish people. The vibrant blue and purple spectrum can be found in the tiniest gland of over 40 species of snails which inhabit various world regions. He explained how this indigo was woven into tapestries, added to clay and dyed into the robes of regal historical figures. A pigment which was once expensive to produce has been replicated in modern times with chemical dyes similar to the ones in denim blue jeans.
While explaining the elaborate past of the pigment, Hoffmann’s ultimate intersection of ideas came with his own fabric-dying experience. The process of creating indigo colored fabrics involves adding this small amount of color from the snail to urine, and then dipping fabric into the solution. Once exposed to oxygen, the fabric turns a beautiful indigo color. Hoffmann experienced the process first-hand, describing it as the ultimate act of faith. He stated that “the wonders of nature never cease,” thus coming full circle connecting science, nature, history and religion.
Although the history is deeply complex, Hoffmann made connections across a variety of subjects through a single color’s chemical creation. When asked how he balances such an expansive spectrum of interests, Hoffmann said, “There are only 24 hours in a day, but I turn that into 48.” He feels that keeping an open mind to the world and fostering a spirit of inquiry are the greatest tools for success.
Hoffmann’s work is a culmination of liberal arts, the coming together of a broad range of subjects to create a well-rounded education, thus making him an insightful speaker in this year’s series.