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The Tense Middle

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's 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 the 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 Dyuk.

We were saved by the action of a good man, that schoolteacher. 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 Dyuk, 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 a chemical reaction, 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.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Roald Hoffmann
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