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Why Buy That Theory?

Roald Hoffmann

A Roll-On Suitcase

Theories that seek acceptance had better be portable. Oh, people will accept an initiation ritual, a tough-to-follow manual to mastering a theory. But if every application of the theory requires consultation with its originator (that's the goal of commercialization, antithetical to the ethic of science), the theory will soon be abandoned. The most popular theories in fact are those that can be applied by others to obtain surprising results. The originator of the theory might have given an eyetooth to have done it earlier, but friends should hold him back—it's better if someone else does it. And cites you.

Relatively uncomplicated models that admit an analytical solution play a special role in the acceptance and popularity of theories among other theorists. I think of the harmonic oscillator, of the Heisenberg and Hückel Hamiltonians, of the Ising Model, my own orbital interactions. The models become modules in a theoretical Erector set, shuttled into any problem as a first (not last) recourse. In part this is fashion, in part testimony to our predilection for simplicity. But, more significantly, the use of soluble models conveys confidence in the value of metaphor—taking one piece of experience over to another. It's also evidence of an existential desire to try something—let's try this.

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