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April 13, 2011
Hedgehogs and Foxes Holding Erlenmeyer Flasks
Over at The Curious Wavefunction, there's an interesting post on Isaiah Berlin's famous hedgehog/fox distinction (which goes back a long way) and how it applies to chemistry. Wavefunction makes the case, which I hadn't thought through in such detail, that chemistry has for a long time been a field for foxes. That is, our famous names tend to be people who jump around from area to area as their interests take them, rather than people who spend their careers digging into one particular problem.
At the outset, one thing seems clear: chemistry is much more of a fox's game than a hedgehog's. This is in contrast to theoretical physics or mathematics which have sported many spectacular hedgehogs. It's not that deep thinking hedgehogs are not valuable in chemistry. It's just that diversity in chemistry is too important to be left to hedgehogs alone. In chemistry more than in physics or math, differences and details matter. Unlike mathematics, where a hedgehog like Andrew Wiles spends almost his entire lifetime wrestling with Fermat's Last Theorem, chemistry affords few opportunities for solving single, narrowly defined problems through one approach, technique or idea. Chemists intrinsically revel in exploring a diverse and sometimes treacherous hodgepodge of rigorous mathematical analysis, empirical fact-stitching, back of the envelope calculations and heuristic modeling. These are activities ideally suited to foxes' temperament. One can say something similar about biologists.
I think he's right, and I think that that's rarely been more true than now. Whitesides, Schreiber, Sharpless. . .start listing big names and you get a list of foxes. As it did for Wavefunction, the most recent hedgehog that springs to my mind in organic chemistry was H. C. Brown, although if Buchwald continues to work on metal-catalyzed amine couplings for another forty years he could come close. Am I missing anyone? Nominations welcome in the comments.
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