Flirting with Catastrophe

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Science  14 Sep 2001:
Vol. 293, Issue 5537, pp. 2013-2014
DOI: 10.1126/science.1065303

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Potential energy functions determine how molecules and atoms interact. They therefore play an important role in chemistry. In his Perspective, Leary highlights the report by Wales, who has applied a new analytical tool, catastrophe theory, to the study of potential energy surfaces. The results provide a rationale for an empirical rule used by chemists to compare structures of reactants, intermediates, and products. Wales also derives a quantitative law relating energy barriers, vibration frequencies, and path lengths, which were previously thought to be unrelated. The theory may help explain the complex behavior of such diverse systems as glasses, clusters, and proteins.