Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Chemistry of Politics

Politics and chemistry share many concepts and even words: coming together vs. falling apart; donor vs. acceptor; tipping point & transition state; polarized vs. neutral; vitriolic & caustic vs. neutral; litmus test; right vs. left; purity vs. impurity; structure & status quo vs. change & kinetics; majority vs. minority; and resonance to name a few off the top of my head. The words "electron" and "election" even look related but are in fact unrelated; electron comes from the Greek word for amber, while the word elect comes from the word to pick and choose.

Years ago, I hypothesized (and published with evidence) that a well-known (but poorly understood) chemical reaction was governed by repulsion: Electronic repulsion at its very core.  Briefly, a catalyst separately held the same substrate in two different ways; an incoming hydrogen molecule would then chose which of the two configurations to ride over the barrier hump while melding into stable products, corresponding to what could be dubbed right and left-handed versions of the same thing. Now, the rate of hydrogen's addition to (choice of) one of two configurations was the deciding factor; it was the deal clincher. Moreover, the two configurations were present in vastly unequal amounts from the start -- around a 10:1 ratio. Prior studies had shown that the incoming hydrogen preferred the minority configuration. That's where I came in. I said that incoming hydrogen was repelled by the major substrate-catalyst complex -- the one with the clingier hangers-on. In effect, I said that substrate binding (clinginess) killed reactivity by swelling a repulsive lobe on the catalyst.

A catalyst is rather like a politician. Its job is to bring us lowly substrates together to make something more stable. But just like my chemistry example, the favored politician with the clingier hangers-on can be the kinetic loser.  It's the repulsion, stupid.