Structure, shape, topology: entangled concepts in molecular chemistry

  • Elena Ghibaudi
  • Luigi Cerruti
  • Giovanni VillaniEmail author


The concepts of molecular structure and molecular shape are ubiquitous in the chemical literature, where they are often taken as synonyms, with unavoidable drawbacks in chemistry teaching. A third concept, molecular topology, is less frequent but it is a reference term in molecular research domains such as Quantitative Structure–Activity Relationships. The present paper proposes an epistemological analysis of these three notions, aimed at clarifying the nature of their relationship, as well as the contiguities and differences between them. At first, we discuss the various acceptations of the terms molecular structure and molecular shape. Then, we examine some crucial milestones in the history of these concepts and we analyse the relationship between structure, shape and topology from an epistemological viewpoint. We point out the distinguishing features of each concept and we show that their semantic openness, that may be fruitful in a specialized context, turns into a source of incoherence and inaccuracy in the teaching context, fostered by the misleading use of these terms made by textbooks. Eventually, we propose a criterion fit to discriminate between the conceptual domains of molecular shape, molecular structure and molecular topology.


Molecular structure Molecular shape Molecular topology Systemic approach Chemical education 



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© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of ChemistryUniversity of TorinoTurinItaly
  2. 2.VinovoItaly
  3. 3.Istituto di Chimica dei Composti OrganoMetallici, ICCOM-CNR (UOS Pisa)PisaItaly

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