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Why Buy That Theory?

Roald Hoffmann


The best theories are productive, in that they stimulate experiment. Science is a wonderfully interactive way for gaining reliable knowledge. What excitement there is in person A advancing a view of how things work, which is tested by B, used by C to motivate making a molecule that tests the limits of the theory, which leads to D (not C) finding that molecule to be superconducting or an antitumor agent, whereupon a horde of graduate students of E or F are put to making slight modifications! People need reasons for doing things. Theories provide them, surely to test the theories (with greater delight if proved wrong), but also just to have a reason for making the next molecule down the line. Theories that provoke experiment are really valued by a community that in every science, even physics, is primarily experimental.

A "corollary" of the significance of productivity is that theories that are fundamentally untenable or ill-defined can still be immensely productive. So was phlogiston in its day, so in chemistry was the idea of resonance energies, calculated in a Hückel model. People made tremendous efforts to make molecules that would never have been made (and found much fascinating chemistry in the process) on the basis of "resonance energies" that had little connection to stability, thermodynamic or kinetic. Did it matter that Columbus miscalculated in his "research proposal" how far the Indies were?

As Jerry Berson has written, "A lot of science consists of permanent experimental facts established in tests of temporary theories."

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