Is the concept of orbital hybridisation an accurate description of a physical process that actually occurs in bonding atoms, or is it, like VSEPR, a heuristic tool to reason about the characteristics of classically infeasible chemical bonds? Forgive the naivete of my question: I ask this because I am not actually acquainted with the bulk of the underlying theory of chemical bonds, but only with a somewhat flimsy and superficial description that seems inadequate and overly contorted to me.

Thanks in advance for any answers!

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    $\begingroup$ Orbitals themselves are not quite as real as sticks and stones. So yes, better think of hybridization as a heuristic tool. $\endgroup$ Feb 8 '17 at 6:18
  • $\begingroup$ @IvanNeretin Thank you. I did think it might be something like that. $\endgroup$ Feb 8 '17 at 6:42
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    $\begingroup$ Orbital hybridization is something people teach in school or universities because it is so straight-forward and easy to understand. I would argue that it is useful for nothing but teaching - if you like, it's a first glimpse at quantum mechanics for the young chemist. It is a great tragedy that it is not made clear by the teachers that in fact it has no applications or connection to the real world and many advanced chemists still try to argue with it. This forum is full of people being confused by it. $\endgroup$
    – AMT
    Feb 8 '17 at 14:48

Orbital hybridisation is, like most other topics bordering quantum mechanics, just a model of reality (in fact, I would go as far as to say like all topics ever thought of, but lets not get too philosophical). As such, there are limits to its usefulness, so models should never be thought of as a "true picture" of anything.

Models are always simplified and in the end "wrong", but sometimes they are useful. Through models we can gain insight and make new predictions that can be falsified or not and as such we advance our understanding (and the most learned even advance science as a whole). Without models I would not understand anything, but I considert it counter productive for myself to think of them as representing some "truth".

$$\text{Observation} \rightarrow \text{interpolation} / \text{modelling} \rightarrow \text{prediction} \rightarrow \text{experiment} \rightarrow \text{observation}$$

  • $\begingroup$ This is a truly outstanding answer that can be applied to almost any field of study. Well put. $\endgroup$
    – ringo
    Feb 8 '17 at 14:46
  • $\begingroup$ Thank you @ringo. The only perfect model of the universe, or indeed any individual component of it - is the universe itself ;) $\endgroup$ Feb 9 '17 at 14:03

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