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Autonomy, Explanation, and Theoretical Values

Physicists and Chemists on Molecular Quantum Mechanics


Address for correspondence: Robin Findlay Hendry, Department of Philosophy, University of Durham, 50 Old Elvet, Durham DH1 3HN, UK.


Abstract: The emergence of quantum chemistry in the early twentieth century was an international as well as an interdisciplinary affair, involving dialogue between physicists and chemists in Germany, the United States, and Britain. Historians of science have recently documented both the causes and effects of this internationalism and interdisciplinarity. Chemists and physicists involved in the development of quantum chemistry in its first few decades tended to argue for opposing views on acceptable standards of explanation in their field, although the debate did not divide along disciplinary lines. The purpose of this paper is to investigate these different positions, through the methodological reflections of John Clarke Slater, Linus Pauling, and Charles Coulson. Slater tended to argue for quantum-mechanical rigor and the application of fundamental principles as the values guiding models of molecular bonding. Although they were on different sides of the debate between the valence-bond and molecular-orbital approaches, Pauling and Coulson both emphasized the recovery of traditional chemical explanations and systematic explanatory power within chemistry.