Is science sometimes in danger of getting tunnel vision? Recently published ebook author, Ian Miller, looks at other possible theories arising from data that we think we understand. Can looking problems in a different light give scientists a different perspective?

What Role Theory?

One issue that has puzzled me is what role, if any, does theory play in modern chemistry, other than having a number of people writing papers. Of course some people are carrying out computations, but does any of their work influence other chemists in any way? Are they busy talking to themselves? The reason why this has struck me is that the latest "Chemistry World" has an article "Do hydrogen bonds have covalent character?" Immediately below is the explanation, "Scientists wrangle over disagreement between charge transfer measurements." My immediate reaction was, what exactly is meant by "covalent character" and "charge transfer"?  I know what I think a covalent bond is, which is a bond formed by two electrons from two atoms pairing to form a wave function component with half the periodic time of the waves on the original free atom. I also accept the dative covalent bond, such as that in the BH3NH3 molecule, where two electrons come from the same atom, and where the resultant bond has a strength and length as if the two electrons originated from separate atoms. That is clearly not what is meant for the hydrogen bond, but the saviour is that word "character".  What does that imply?
 What puzzles me here is that on reading the article, there are no charge transfer measurements. What we have, instead, are various calculations based on models, and the argument is whether the model involves transfer of electrons. However, as far as I can make out, there is no observational evidence at all. In the BH3NH3 molecule, obviously the two electrons for the bond start from the nitrogen atom, but the resultant dipole moment does not indicate a whole electron is transferred, although we could say it is, and then sent back to form the bond. However, in that molecule we have a dipole moment of over 6 Debye units. What is the change of dipole moment in forming the hydrogen bond? If we want to argue for charge transfer, we should at least know that.
From my point of view, the hydrogen bond is essentially very weak, and is at least an order of magnitude less strong than similar covalent bonds. This would suggest that if there were charge transfer, it is relatively minor. Why would such a small effect not be simply due to polarization? With the molecule BH3NH3 it is generally accepted that the lone pair on the ammonia enters the orbital structure of the boron system, with both being tetrahedral in structure, more or less. The dipole moment is about 6 Debye units, which does not correspond to one electron fully transferring to the boron system. There is clear charge transfer and the bond is effectively covalent.
Now, if we then look at ammonia, do we expect the lone pair on the nitrogen to transfer itself to the hydrogen atom of another ammonia molecule to form this hydrogen bond? If it corresponded to the boron example, then we would expect a change of at least several Debye units but as far as I know, there is no such change of dipole moment that is not explicable in terms of it being a condensed system. The article states there are experimental data to support charge transfer, but what is it?
Back to my original problem with computational chemistry: what role, if any, does theory play in modern chemistry? In this article we see a statement such as the NBO method falls foul of "basis set superposition error". What exactly does that mean, and how many chemists appreciate exactly what it means? We have a disagreement where one is accused of focusing on energies, while they focus on charge density shifts.  At least energies are measurable. What bothers me is that such arguments on whether different people use the same terminology differently is a bit like arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.  What we need from theory is a reasonably clear statement of what it means, and a clear statement of what assumptions are made, and what part validation plays in the computations.
Posted by Ian Miller on Apr 24, 2017 12:54 AM Europe/London

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