Unhappy molecules

04 June 2008 - Philosophy

In the Angewandte Chemie this week two heavy-hitters in chemistry Roald Hoffmann and Henning Hopf attempt to answer a fundamental question: why bother with unhappy molecules (DOI). These molecules are afflicted with unusual bond angles or bond lengths and therefore too energetic, requiring very little to decompose or engage in reactions. Many strained molecules have been synthesised by organic chemists for example cubane, dodecahedrane and cyclophanes but others still await the light of day (for example hexaprismane).

In their essay titled Learning from molecules in distress the authors arrive at a somewhat predictable but candid answer. Yes, abnormal molecules are alluring just because they are there (compare George Mallory's because it is there), yes chemists are curious by nature, they enjoy the praise they receive for doing something not done before and yes they want to publish and they want to be quoted.

On the other hand they rule out molecular sadism as a driving force for chemical research. They investigate at length the founding father of sadism Marquis de Sade (must be his first mention in chemical literature) praise him for his libertine thinking out of the box but deplore his overall sick (sic) philosophy.

Aside from psychological considerations, strained molecules should be studied for their philosophical appeal. The authors argue that in science generalizations will only hold up to scrutiny when limits and limitations are explored. To make their case the authors offer comparisons to several famous philosophical gedanken experiments such as the Twin Earth, Swamp man or the Trolley problem (for that article Wikipedia gets a favorable mention although curiously not in the citations).

In short, research and innovation is driven by explorations of the extreme or in the words of Hoffmann & Hopf it is the rim from which we understand the center better.