Many a beautiful theory has been slain by an ugly fact

Suppose I were to mention professor A Einstein, a German-born theoretician who spent his later years in the US. You would assume I was talking about the great Albert - right? Wrong! As it happens, I allude to his distant cousin Alfred, the eminent musicologist.  

Then again, if I told you that Albert Einstein provided the voice for Marlin in the movie Finding Nemo you would probably advise me to get a grip, wouldn’t you? But in fact the voice was that of the fine screen actor, director and writer Albert Brooks, whose real name is indeed Albert Einstein.  

And the moral? Don’t jump to conclusions, even if someone as eminent as Einstein is in on the act. Wait until you have all the facts you can lay your hands on, and only then frame a hypothesis encompassing all of them. If more facts come along that don’t fit with your hypothesis, change the hypothesis, not the facts.  

Many a beautiful theory has been slain by an ugly fact, as Huxley once remarked sadly. For example, James Clerk Maxwell invented Maxwell’s Demon, a hypothetical creature capable of opening and closing doors so rapidly it could segregate molecules. He used the demon to demonstrate a way to circumvent the dreaded second law of thermodynamics. But the French physicist Marcel Brillouin eventually found the fatal flaw in this delightful concept.  

At one time, there was a rather charming belief that when substances burn they give up an invisible, insubstantial material called phlogiston. But Antoine Lavoisier proved that combustion consists of the combination of the burning material and oxygen. Tragically, he was beheaded, not for this pettifoggery but for having been a sort of tax collector. 

And to show that nobody was immune - not even arguably the greatest of them all - Newton’s law of gravity had eventually to bow to Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which explained one or two new and rather inconvenient facts.  

Theories have dropped like flies in this way in most scientific subjects but, strangely, not so much in chemistry. The venerable law of mass action, for instance, still holds, to the best of my knowledge. But don’t assume that sacred cows are never slaughtered in the abattoirs of chemistry.  

To take just one example, in my day everybody knew that the noble gases didn’t enter into chemical combination, hence the name. Then along came Neil Bartlett with his irresistible force in the shape of platinum hexafluoride, an oxidising agent so ferocious that it bludgeoned the immovable object xenon into producing xenon fluoroplatinate, XePtF6. So much for the sanctity of a full outer shell of electrons.  

After the fuss died down a new name had to be found for the gases formerly known as noble. The usual alternative was ’the rare gases’, a strange choice considering that helium is the second most abundant element in the universe, and argon is the fourth largest constituent of our own atmosphere. I think there should have been a competition to find a new name. Since they are all in group zero, I would have plumped for ’the noughties’. Alternatively, bearing in mind their recalcitrance, perhaps ’the binomenes’ would be apt? The names of the individual members could use an update too. Since xenon was first to lose its chemical virginity, ’defloron’ might be suitable. You get the idea.  

One final dead cow. When I was a student we knew that when you got down to it chemistry was based on quantum mechanical principles, mainly because Pauling said so. Paul Dirac had dropped enough hints that relativistic effects were equally important in completely explaining chemical phenomena, but he had largely been ignored. Only in the 1970s was the theory properly worked out, showing that he had been dead right, especially for the heavier elements. This was a comfort to me since it has long been clear that almost everything is ruled by quantum theory and relativity. Why should chemistry be left out in the cold?  

Brian Malpass