Definition of molecular structure: By choice or by appeal to observation?

  • Bader R
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There are two schools of thought in chemistry: one derived from the valence bond and molecular orbital models of bonding, the other appealing directly to the measurable electron density and the quantum mechanical theorems that determine its behavior, an approach embodied in the quantum theory of atoms in molecules, QTAIM. No one questions the validity of the former approach, and indeed molecular orbital models and QTAIM play complementary roles, the models finding expression in the principles of physics. However, some orbital proponents step beyond the models to impose their personal stamp on their use in interpretive chemistry, by denying the possible existence of a physical basis for the concepts of chemistry. This places them at odds with QTAIM, whose very existence stems from the discovery in the observable topology of the electron density, the definitions of atoms, of the bonding between atoms and hence of molecular structure. Relating these concepts to the electron density provides the necessary link for their ultimate quantum definition. This paper explores in depth the possible causes of the difficulties some have in accepting the quantum basis of structure beginning with the arguments associated with the acceptance of a "bond path" as a criterion for bonding. This identification is based on the finding that all classical structures may be mapped onto molecular graphs consisting of bond paths linking neighboring atoms, a mapping that has no known exceptions and one that is further bolstered by the finding that there are no examples of "missing bond paths". Difficulties arise when the quantum concept is applied to systems that are not amenable to the classical models of bonding. Thus one is faced with the recurring dilemma of science, of having to escape the constraints of a model that requires a change in the existing paradigm, a process that has been in operation since the discovery of new and novel structures necessitated the extension of the Lewis model and the octet rule. The paper reviews all facets of bonding beginning with the work of Pauling and Slater in their accounting for crystal structures, taking note of Pauling's advocating possible bonding between large anions. Many examples of nonbonded or van der Waals interactions are considered from both points of view. The final section deals with the consequences of the realization that bonded quantum atoms that share an interatomic surface do not "overlap". The time has come for entering students of chemistry to be taught that the electron density can be seen, touched, and measured and that the chemical structures they learn are in fact the tracings of "bonds" onto lines of maximum density that link bonded nuclei. Matter, as we perceive it, is bound by the electrostatic force of attraction between the nuclei and the electron density.

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  • Richard F.W. Bader

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