New scientific categories bring vitality

Vitamins B

Source: © Science Photo Library

The history of vitamins shows that ‘kinds’ don’t have to exist in nature to drive scientific discoveries

New concepts can help to guide scientific research, and even originate entire fields of research. Very simply, introducing new categories invites a search for the underlying mechanisms that realise them. Iteroselectivity is a good example of this. As Roy Lavendomme and Ivan Jabin discussed recently in Chemistry World, they introduced this concept in 2014 to express a special kind of selectivity that governs the number of repeating chemical transformations that occur on a substrate bearing multiple identical functional groups, or that occur when the reactive group is regenerated.

The introduction of iteroselectivity as a category, or ‘kind’, is beneficial as it allows researchers to focus on the specificity of the transformations involved in these processes.1 In particular, it seems that this category might capture a ‘natural kind’ of phenomenon – something that exists independently from how we think of it and improves our knowledge of the chemical world. However, do all the concepts introduced to guide research have this property? Or are some categories ‘conventions’, something we introduce because they play a useful role but do not capture anything that really exists? And should those conventions be introduced anyway?