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That’s Interesting

Curiosity drives discovery. But what, exactly, makes us curious?

Roald Hoffmann

It Comes, It Goes

2011-09MargHoffmannFA.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageThere is a strong psychological component in the word interesting and the feeling it describes. That’s clear from the waning of interest, which is as much a part of the experience as is its rise. I recently caught myself saying “Electronically, the dodecaborate anion (B12H122-) is uninteresting.” I remember the day in 1961 that the inorganic chemist Fred Hawthorne walked into the office of one of my research advisors at Harvard and told us that he had made K2B12H12. Before that, I had read Linus Pauling’s prediction that neutral B12H12 would be stable. And I had studied a calculation, performed by theoretical chemists H. Christopher Longuet-Higgins and M. de V. Roberts, which instead predicted that this polyhedral molecule would be stable only as a dianion. Hawthorne had just confirmed the prediction of Longuet-Higgins and Roberts. At the time, I couldn’t have imagined a more interesting molecule.

But now, 50 years later, I had said it was not interesting. What I meant was that I had seen many substituted B12H122- ions since the 1960s, so I was familiar with the structure. It is a “closed-shell” molecule, with a big gap between its filled and unfilled orbitals. Its salts are generally colorless and unreactive. All this was settled, and now I was looking for excitement, looking for electronic trouble, looking for molecules that were not insulators but conductors. The geometric beauty of the Platonic solid had ceased to move my jaded mind. A molecular degenerate, that’s what I was. I should put those words of disinterest in lovely B12H122- back in my mouth. But my naysaying illustrates a point: Interest falls off as novelty fades. We get bored with that simple melody. Even our teenage children eventually (albeit too slowly for us) move on to the next hit.

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