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Why Buy That Theory?

Roald Hoffmann

The theory of theories goes like this: A theory will be accepted by a scientific community if it explains better (or more of) what is known, fits at its fringes with what is known about other parts of our universe and makes verifiable, preferably risky, predictions.

Sometimes it does go like that. So the theory that made my name (and added to the already recognized greatness of the man with whom I collaborated, the synthetic chemist of the 20th century, Robert B. Woodward) did make sense of many disparate and puzzling observations in organic chemistry. And "orbital symmetry control," as our complex of ideas came to be called, made some risky predictions. I remember well the day that Jerry Berson sent us his remarkable experimental results on the stereochemistry of the so-called 1,3-sigmatropic shift. It should proceed in a certain way, he reasoned from our theory—a nonintuitive way. And it did.

But much that goes into the acceptance of theories has little to do with rationalization and prediction. Instead, I will claim, what matters is a heady mix of factors in which psychological attitudes figure prominently.

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