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MARGINALIA

Why Think Up New Molecules?

Adding to the world of known chemical structures is a wonderful mental experiment

Roald Hoffmann


A Stake in Creation

Synthesis, the making of molecules, is at the heart of chemistry—the art, craft, business and science of substances (molecules at the microscopic level) and their transformations. Of course you need to know what substances are, so analysis is a parallel, lively enterprise. As is figuring out why molecules have the colors or other properties they do, and why they react in certain ways and not others.

Chemists make the objects of their own contemplation. And, of course, study the beautiful, evolved world around and within them. By being as much (if not more) in the work of creation as discovery, chemistry is close to art. And lest we get too puffed up on that, creation also brings chemistry close to engineering (which certainly can have artistic elements in it).

I love explaining. But as a theoretician, I also want to take part in the work of creation. I can do so by thinking up interesting molecules not yet made. Maybe, just maybe, an experimentalist will try to make the molecule. Actually, given human nature, a hypothetical molecule will be made more expeditiously if it is thought up by the person who could synthesize it, rather than by me or some other theoretician.


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