Nobel laureates show support for Ukraine

A letter signed by 163 Nobel Prize laureates, and drafted by Cornell Nobel laureate Roald Hoffmann, was released March 1, condemning Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attack on Ukraine and expressing support for the Ukrainian people and the country.

“In a move that recalls the infamous attack of Nazi Germany on Poland in 1939 and on the Soviet Union in 1941, the government of the Russian Federation, led by President Putin, has launched an unprovoked military aggression – nothing else but a war – against its neighbor, Ukraine,” the letter states. “We choose our words carefully here, for we do not believe the Russian people have a role in this aggression. We join in condemning these military actions and President Putin’s essential denial of the legitimacy of Ukraine’s existence.”

Hoffmann, the Frank H. T. Rhodes Professor Emeritus in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology in the College of Arts and Sciences, won the 1981 Nobel in chemistry. He was born in 1937 into a Polish Jewish family in a part of Poland that became part of Ukraine after World War II. During that war, a Ukrainian family hid Hoffmann’s family from the Nazis – a family Hoffmann and his children still visit.

“This is now three generations later, but we are in touch. They are still in Ukraine, in the western part of the country that hasn’t been attacked yet,” he said.

Along with his Ukrainian connections, Hoffmann spent a year abroad in Russia as a graduate student at Harvard University, so he also has ties to scientists and others there. “I’m close to both of these cultures, which are very close to each other,” he said.

When he heard of the invasion, Hoffmann felt strongly that Nobel laureates needed to respond, so he approached Richard Roberts, a biochemist who won the Nobel in 1993 in physiology/medicine and who maintains a website and manages the process for Nobel laureates to speak out on issues of interest. Shortly after the invasion began, Hoffmann’s draft was sent out to the group for edits and signatures.

“This is one the largest groups of Nobel laureates uniting on an issue, condemning the Russians and supporting the Ukrainian people,” Hoffmann said. “That was the main reason for writing this, to let the Ukrainians know that we are with them, that we understand that this is uncalled for, that it’s barbaric and that it’s not the way to solve international disputes.”

The website containing the Nobel letter also includes statements from the Dalai Lama and former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama, all Nobel laureates who wanted to personally comment on the issue.

Hoffmann said it was important that the letter not condemn Russian citizens overall.

 “I’ve gotten emails from Russian colleagues saying ‘this is not my war,’ “ Hoffmann said.

Other Cornell Nobel laureates who are signatories to the letter include Harold E. Varmus, the Lewis Thomas University Professor of Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine, who won the Nobel for physiology/medicine in 1989; Robert F. Engle III, M.S. ‘66, Ph.D. ’69, who won the 2003 prize in economic sciences; Sheldon Glashow ’54, winner of the 1979 prize in physics; William Moerner, M.S. ’78, Ph.D. ’82,, who won the 2014 prize in chemistry; and Jack Szostak, Ph.D. ’77, winner of the 2009 prize in physiology/medicine.

“We respect the calm and the strength of the Ukrainian people. We are with you,” the letter says in closing. “Our hearts go out to the families and friends of all, Ukrainians and Russians, who have died and been injured already. May peace come to this piece of our beautiful world.”

This story also appeared in The Cornell Chronicle.

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