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Marginalia: Why Buy That Theory?


Author(s): Roald Hoffmann
Source: American Scientist, Vol. 91, No. 1 (JANUARY-FEBRUARY 2003), pp. 9-11
Published by: Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society
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Marginalia

Why Buy That Theory?

Roald Hoffmann

The theory of theories goes like this:A theo truth. Simple theories seem to validate that idol
rywill be accepted by a scientific commu of science, Ockham's razor. In preaching the po
nity if it explains better (ormore of)what is etic conciseness and generality of orbital expla
known, fits at its fringes with what is known nations, I have succumbed to this, too.
about other parts of our universe and makes ver A corrective to the infatuation of scientists
ifiable, preferably risky,predictions. with simplicitymight come from asking them to
Sometimes it does go like that. So the theory think ofwhat they consider beautiful in art, be it
thatmade my name (and added to the already music or the visual arts. Is itBach's Goldberg Vari
recognized greatness of theman with whom I ations or a dance tunewhere the theme plays ten
collaborated, the synthetic chemist of the 20th times identically in succession? Is any animal
century,Robert B.Woodward) did make sense of ever painted to show itsbilateral symmetry?
many disparate and puzzling observations in or Still, there's no getting away from it; a theory
ganic chemistry.And "orbital symmetry control/' that is simple yet explains a lot is usually accept
as our complex of ideas came to be called, made ed in a flash.
some risky predictions. I remember well the day
that JerryBerson sent us his remarkable experi Storytelling
mental results on the stereochemistry of the so What if theworld is complex? Here, symmetry
called 1,3-sigmatropic shift. It should proceed in is broken; there, the seemingly simplest of
a certain way, he reasoned from our theory?a chemical reactions, hydrogen burning towater,
nonintuitive way. And itdid. has a messy mechanism. The means by which
But much that goes into the acceptance of the one subunit of hemoglobin communicates its
ories has little to do with rationalization and pre oxygenation to a second subunit, an essential
diction. Instead, Iwill claim, what matters is a task, resembles a Rube Goldberg cartoon. Not to
heady mix of factors inwhich psychological atti speak of the intricacies of any biological re
tudes figure prominently. sponse, from the rise of blood pressure or re
lease of adrenalin when a snake lunges at us, to
Simplicity returning a Ping-Pong serve with backspin. Max
A simple equation describing a physical phe Perutz's theory of the cooperativity of oxygen
nomenon (better still, many), the molecule uptake, theway the ribosome functions?these
shaped like a Platonic solid with regular geome require complicated explanations. And yes, the
try,the simple mechanism (A?>B, in one step)? inherent tinkering of evolution has made them
these have tremendous aesthetic appeal, a direct complex. But
simpler
chemical reactions?a can
beeline into our soul. They are beautifully simple, dle burning?are also intricate. As complex as
and simply beautiful. Theories of this type are the essential physics of themalleability, brittle
awesome in the original sense of the world? ness and hardness ofmetals. Or the geology of
who would deny this of the theory of evolution, hydrothermal vents.
theDirac equation or general relativity? When things are complex yet understandable,
A little caution might be suggested from pon human beings weave stories.We do so for several
dering the fact thatpolitical ads patently cater to reasons: A-?B
requires
no
story. But A?>B?>C-^D
our psychobiological predilection for simplicity. and not A-^B?>C->D is in itself a story.Second,
Is theworld simple? Or do we justwant it to be as psychologist Jerome Bruner writes, "For there
such? In thedreams of some, thebeauty and sim to be a story something unforeseen must hap
plicity of equations becomes a criterion for their pen." In science the unforeseen lurks around the
next experimental corner. Stories then "domesti
Roald Hoffmann is Frank . T. Rhodes cate to use Bruner's
Professor ofHumane unexpectedness," phrase.
our psy
Letters at Cornell University. Address: Baker Laboratory, Cornell Storytelling seems to be ingrained in
University, Ithaca, NY 14853-1301. che. Iwould claim thatwith our gift of spoken

2003 9
January-February

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thinkup any crazy scheme. And, in theway sci
ence works, ifyou are too blinded by your preju
dices to see the faults in your theoretical fan
tasies, you can be sure others will.
Many theories are popular because they tell a
rollicking good story,one that is sage in captur
ing theway theworld works, and could be stored
away to deal with the next trouble. Stories can be
funny; can there be humorous theories?

A Roll-On Suitcase
Theories that seek acceptance had better be
portable.Oh, people will accept an initiation ritu
al, a tough-to-followmanual tomastering a theo
ry.But ifevery application of the theory requires
consultation with itsoriginator (that's the goal of
commercialization, antithetical to the ethic of sci
ence), the theorywill 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 theorymight have given an
eyetooth to have done it earlier, but friends
Cartoon in 1988 should hold him back?it's better ifsomeone else
by Constance Heller, originally published (Ange
wandte Chemie 100:1657). does it.And cites you.
Relatively uncomplicated models that admit
and written language, this is theway we wrest an analytical solution play a special role in the
pleasure, psychologically, from a messy world. acceptance and popularity of theories among
Scientists are no exception. Part of the story they other theorists. I think of the harmonic oscillator,
tell is how they got there?the x-ray filmsmea of theHeisenberg and H?ckel Hamiltonians, of
sured over a decade, the blind alleys and false the IsingModel, my own orbital interactions. The
leads of a chemical synthesis. It is never easy, and models become modules in a theoretical Erector
serendipity substitutes forwhat in earlier ages set, shuttled into any problem as a first (not last)
would have been called the grace of God. In the recourse. In part this is fashion, in part testimony
end, we overcome. This appeals, and none of it to our predilection for simplicity. But, more sig
takes away from the ingenuity of the creative act. nificantly, theuse of soluble models conveys con
In thinking about theories, storytelling has fidence in the value of metaphor?taking one
some distinct features. There is always a begin piece of experience over to another. It's also evi
ning to a theory?modeling assumptions, per dence of an existential desire to trysomething?
haps unexpected observations to account for. let's try this.
Then, in a mathematically oriented theory,a kind
of development section follows. Something is Productivity
tried; it leads nowhere, or leaves one dissatisfied. The best theories are productive, in that they
So one essays a variation on what had been a mi stimulate experiment. Science is a wonderfully
nor theme, and?all of a sudden?it soars. Reso interactive way for gaining reliable knowledge.
lution and coda follow. I thinkof the surprise that What excitement there is in person A advancing
comes fromdoing a Fourier transform,or of see a view of how thingswork, which is tested by B,
ing eigenvalues popping out of nothing but an used by C tomotivate making a molecule that
equation and boundary conditions. tests the limits of the theory,which leads to D
Sadly, in the published accounts of theories, (not C) finding thatmolecule to be supercon
much of the narrative of the struggle forunder ducting or an antitumor agent, whereupon a
standing is left out, because of self-censorship horde of graduate students of E or F are put to
and the desire to show us as more rational than making slight modifications! People need rea
we were. That's okay; fortunately one can still sons for doing things. Theories provide them,
see the development sections of a theoretical surely to test the theories (with greater delight if
symphony as one examines an ensemble of theo proved wrong), but also just to have a reason for
ries, created by many people, not just one, grop making the next molecule down the line. Theo
ing towards understanding. ries that provoke experiment are really valued
The other place where narrative is rife is in by a community that in every science, even
the hypothesis-forming stage of doing science. physics, is primarily experimental.
This iswhere the "reach of imagination" of sci A "corollary" of the significance of productivity
ence, as Jacob Bronowski referred to it, is explicit. is that theories that are fundamentally untenable
Soon you will be brought down to earth by ex or ill-defined can still be immensely
productive.
periment, but here thewild man in you can soar, So was phlogiston in its day, so in chemistrywas

10 American Scientist, Volume 91

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the idea of resonance energies, calculated in a A->B^C->D, but A->B->C->D because of such
H?ckel model. People made tremendous effortsto and such propensities ofA, and C. The implic
make molecules thatwould never have been made it strong conviction of causality, justified by
(and found much fascinating chemistry in the seemingly irrefutable reason, may be dangerous
process) on the basis of "resonance energies" that ly intoxicating. This is one reason why Iwouldn't
had littleconnection to stability,thermodynamic or like scientists and engineers to run thisworld.
kinetic.Did itmatter thatColumbus miscalculated The acceptance of theories depends as much
inhis "research proposal" how far the Indieswere? on the psychology of human beings as on the
As JerryBerson has written, "A lot of science content of the theories. It is human beings who
consists of permanent experimental facts estab decide, individually and as a community,whether
lished in tests of temporary theories." a theory indeed has explanatory power or pro
vides understanding. This iswhy seemingly "ex
Frameworks forUnderstanding trascientific" factors such as productivity, porta
Stephen G. Brush has recently studied a range of bility, storytelling power and aesthetics matter.
fields and discoveries, to see what role predic Sometimes it takes a long time (witness conti
tions play in the acceptance of theories. Here's nental drift), but often the acceptance is immedi
what he has to say about the new quantum me ate and intuitive?it fits.Like a nice sweater.
chanics: "Novel predictions played essentially
no role in the acceptance of themost important 'Tis a Gift
physical theory of the 20th century, quantum There is something else, even more fundamen
mechanics. Physicists quickly accepted that the tally psychological, at work. Every society uses
ory because itprovided a coherent deductive ac gifts, as altruistic offerings but more importantly
count of a large body of known empirical as a way of
mediating social interactions. In sci
facts...." Many theories predict relatively little ence the gift is both transparent and central. Pure
(quantum mechanics actually did eventually) science is as close to a gift economy as we have,
yet are accepted because they carry tremendous as Jeffrey Kovac has argued. Every article in our
explanatory power. They do so by classification, open literature is a gift to all of us. Every analyti
providing a framework (for themind) fororder cal method, every instrument. It's desired that
ing an immense amount of observation. This is the gift be beautiful (simple gifts are, but also
what I think 20th century theories of acidity and those thatbring us a good storywith them), tobe
basicity in chemistry (? la Lewis or Bronsted) do. sure. But that the offering be useful (portable,
Alternatively, the understanding provided is one productive) endows itwith special value. The
ofmechanism?this is the strength of the theory giver will be remembered, every moment, by the
of evolution. one who received the gift.
It is best to distinguish the concepts of theory, The purpose of theory, Berson writes, is "to
explanation and understanding. Or to try to do bring order, clarity, and predictability to a small
so, for they resist differentiation. Evelyn Fox corner of theworld." That suffices. A theory is
Keller, who in her brilliant recent book, Making then a special gift, a gift for themind in a society
Sense ofLife,has many instructive tales of theory (of science, not the world) where thought and
acceptance, says this of explanation: understanding are preeminent. A gift from one
human being to another, to us all.
A description or a phenomenon counts as an
... if and
explanation only if itmeets the
needs of an individual or a community. The Acknowledgment
I thank
Michael Weisberg for incisive questions and
challenge, therefore, is to understand the comments.
needs that different kinds of explanations
meet. Needs do of course vary and inevitably
so: theyvary not onlywith the state of the sci Bibliography
Berson, J.A. 1999. Chemical Creativity: Ideas from theWork of
ence at a particular time,with local techno
Woodward, H?ckel, Meerwein, and Others. Weinheim, Ger
logical, social, and economic opportunities, many: Wiley-VCH.
but also with larger cultural preoccupations. Bruner, J. 2002. Making Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus
and Giroux.
As Bas van Fraassen has incisively argued, any
Brush, S. G. 1994. Dynamics of Theory Change: The Role of
explanation is an answer. Ifwe accept that, the Predictions. In Proceedings of the 1994 Biennial Meeting of
nature of the question becomes of essence, and so the Philosophy of Science Association, 2:133-145, ed. D.
does our reception of the answer. Both (the re Hull et al. East Lansing, Mich.: PSA.

constructed question of "why?" and our re Hoffmann, R., V. I.Minkin and .


K. 1996. Ock
Carpenter.
ham's razor and chemistry. Bulletin de la Societ? Chimique
sponse) are context-dependent and subjective. de France 133:117-130.
Understanding, van Fraassen says, "consists in Keller, E. E 2002. Making Sense of Life. Cambridge, Mass.:
being in a position to explain." And so is equally Harvard University Press.
subjective in a pragmatic universe. Kovac, J. 2001. Gifts and commodities in science. Hyle
Incidentally explanations are almost always 7:141-153.
stories. Indeed, moralistic and deterministic sto Van Fraassen, B. C. 1980. The Scientific Image. Oxford:
ries. For to be satisfying they don't just say Clarendon Press, pp. 132-157.

2003 11
January-February

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