|The Stochastic Secret
Mustering everything he knew about chemistry and physics, and adding to it his new
interest in model building, Pauling was able to leap to a solution where others were
left mired in a swamp of confusing x-ray data.
A few years later, Pauling was describing his approach to an acquaintance, Karl Darrow,
who told him that it already had a name: the stochastic method. Darrow referred Pauling
to a 1909 chemistry text in which the author talked about the long-disused Greek term
that could be translated as "to divine the truth by conjecture." In a simple way,
the stochastic approach could be seen as nothing more than an educated guess, a hypothesis
like any other scientific hypothesis. Anybody could guess at a molecular structure,
and while a comparison of the molecule's properties to those calculated for the hypothetical
structure might eliminate the guessed-at structure as wrong, it was difficult to say
that the hypothetical structure was rigorously correct because the comparison between
the guess and reality would be based almost invariably on limited experimental data.
But the way Pauling used it, the stochastic method was not a simple guessing game.
You had to know enough about chemistry and crystallography to pare away all but a
single structure. As he put it, "Agreement on a limited number of points cannot be
accepted as verification of the hypothesis. In order for the stochastic method to
be significant the principles used in formulating the hypothesis must be restrictive
enough to make the hypothesis itself essentially unique; in other words, an investigator
who makes use of this method should be allowed one guess."
Pauling had broken through a very complex problem using his stochastic method, and
he would continue to employ it against even tougher puzzles during the next three
decades. Sometimes his one guess would be wrong; far more often he would be right.
This ability to "divine the truth by conjecture" would allow him to vault over his
competition in solving the thorniest chemical problems. Eventually, it would bring
him his greatest triumphs and earn him the reputation of a person who could almost
magically dream up solutions where others had failed. But it was all the result of
very hard work, deep chemical knowledge, and a willingness, a daring, to make that