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Roald Hoffmann

The Loveliest of Prejudices

If one can make any generalization about the human mind, it is that it craves simple answers. The ideology of the simple reigns in science, as it does in politics. So we have the romantic dreams of theoreticians (for example, Dirac) preferring simple and/or beautiful equations. And the moment Richard Smalley, Sir Harold Kroto, Robert Curl and their coworkers intuited that the C60 peak in their laser-ablated carbon mass spectrum came from a molecule that should grace the flag of Brazil, I believed it. It could not be otherwise. And they were right.

Figure 1. In his 1921 paintingClick to Enlarge Image

Simplicity, symmetry and order ride a straight ray into our souls. I wonder why? Perhaps (this is far out) we have evolved a psychobiological predilection for the qualities of the world that rationalize our existence as locally contraentropic creatures that build molecules and poems. And I am a little unfair to the creative force implicit in the psychological imperative for the simple. The cult of mathematical simplicity as beauty is a reaching for essences that parallels the compact truth-telling of poetry. This is what Dalton, Dirac and Einstein aspired to. And this perspective has led to "the majesty, subtlety, and grace of science, and her deepest insights and discoveries," as Michael Fisher so aptly put it.

But what if the world is determined by us, by scientific us, to be complex, unsymmetrical and moderately chaotic? How do we find satisfaction, and I do mean psychological satisfaction, in such a world?

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