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That’s Interesting

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

Roald Hoffmann

How Understanding Begins

I think that the exciting kind of interest is intimately connected to the beginning of understanding, and it is in this way that the psychological intertwines with the epistemological. Understanding rarely comes ab initio, by simply tracing the consequences of a theory. Even the epitome of Dirac’s positron prediction had a small struggle for understanding embedded in it: Dirac first thought the proton was the antiparticle to the electron. He had to tweak his worldview to solve the puzzle and propose the positron instead.

Something is judged to be interesting because of our inability to explain it or, as Anne Poduska points out, it just has not been posited before. That judgment is not generally announced in broadsides or by community consensus. (There are exceptions, such a David Hilbert’s 23 mathematical problems. He proclaimed them as interesting, and because of Hilbert’s stature and intuition, they inspired a good deal of later research.) But I believe that, for the most part, the judgment (“now this is interesting”) is made in solitude, or perhaps in the setting of a small research group. This is what happened for Anne Poduska and me in that small problem of the choosy sulfur rectangles.

Faced with a puzzle, and excited by it, I do try to understand the anomaly before me. My failure to find a ready explanation, and my feeling that the phenomenon is nonetheless understandable—these are both motivating psychological actions. In time, if I am fortunate, my thinking brings me to an explanation that makes sense not only to me, but to the community of chemists. I wouldn’t have gotten there without thinking, “That molecule is really interesting.”

©Roald Hoffman


  • Berlyne, D. 1960. Conflict, Arousal and Curiosity. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Pitochelli, A. R., and M. F. Hawthorne. 1960. The isolation of the icosahedral B12H12-2 ion. Journal of the American Chemical Society 82:3228–3229.
  • Poduska, A., R. Hoffmann, A. Ienco and C. Mealli. 2009. “Half bonds” in an unusual coordinated S42- rectangle. Chemistry, an Asian Journal 4:302–313.
  • Silvia, P. J. 2006. Exploring the Psychology of Interest. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Silvia, P. J. 2008. Interest—the curious emotion. Current Directions in Psychological Science 17:57–60.

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