Foundations of Chemistry

, Volume 14, Issue 3, pp 235-243

First online:

A neglected aspect of the puzzle of chemical structure: how history helps

  • Joseph E. EarleySr.Affiliated withDepartment of Chemistry, Georgetown University Email author 

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Intra-molecular connectivity (that is, chemical structure) does not emerge from computations based on fundamental quantum-mechanical principles. In order to compute molecular electronic energies (of C3H4 hydrocarbons, for instance) quantum chemists must insert intra-molecular connectivity “by hand.” Some take this as an indication that chemistry cannot be reduced to physics: others consider it as evidence that quantum chemistry needs new logical foundations. Such discussions are generally synchronic rather than diachronic—that is, they neglect ‘historical’ aspects. However, systems of interest to chemists generally are metastable. In many cases chemical systems of a given elemental composition may exist in any one of several different metastable states depending on the history of the system. Molecular structure generally depends on contingent historical circumstances of synthesis and separation, rather than solely or mainly on relative energies of alternative stable states, those energies in turn determined by relationships among components. Chemical structure is usually ‘kinetically-determined’ rather than ‘thermodynamically-determined.’ For instance, cyclical hydrocarbon ring-systems (as in cyclopropene) are produced only in special circumstances. Adequate theoretical treatments must take account of the persistent effects of such contingent historical events whenever they are relevant—as they generally are in chemistry.


Synchronic Diachronic Isomers Chemical structure W*-algebra Allene Propyne Propadiene Philosophy of chemistry Metastable Potential energy surfaces Equilibrium states Transition states Quantum chemistry Historicity Contextual emergence