Phil it up
In the summertime when the weather was fine, the chemical philosophers
gathered once again to discuss the under-currents of their science. Chemical
philosophy is not so much revolutionising the way chemists work but providing a
quiet insight into the workings of the science and what chemistry means.
One of the main problems facing chemical philosophy is the disparity between philosophy and physical science that ought not to exist. At one time, philosophy was defined as physical science and indeed the PhD is all about deep thought; isn't it? There are few working scientists around today though with the time or budgetary freedom to consider the in-depth workings of science or its implications beyond the limited self-discovery provided by the likes of drug development, material gain in materials science or the application of data in patent applications.
The growing philosophy of science movement, however, and its chemical cousin, can allow the chemist to stand back and think about their science rather than simply doing it. It isn't as if chemistry has not reached a point at which it can take a well-earned break - just look at the Chemical Abstracts Service web site for instance, which now has more than 21 million registered compound…
Indeed, chemical philosophers such as Eric Scerri at the Department of Chemistry, Purdue University, believe it is essential that chemists take the time to stand back from the task of creating yet more entries in the CAS registry and instead look more closely at what underlies the scientific problems they face today. By adopting such an attitude, it might be possible to solve countless problems away from the benchtop. The ability to understand vitally important molecules such as DNA is at the heart of this philosophical approach.
Davis Baird of the Department of Philosophy at South Carolina presents an argument for the idea that scientific instruments are themselves scientific knowledge. What he means by that is that the devices that scientists use to measure and model their data should be seen on a par with theory. This is more than the fundamental quantum science concept of the act of observation impinging on the results that lies at the heart of the Uncertainty Principle. What Baird offers is the idea that the devices themselves are just as valid as the results in terms of providing a perspective on a particular scientific view of reality.
As an example, of this seemingly rather esoteric idea, Baird looks closely at the common-or-garden 'ball and stick' models, with which no chemist can be unfamiliar. A close relative of the ball and stick system was that used by Watson and Crick in their well-known construction of the DNA double helix and its crystallographic verification by Rosalind Franklyn - who incidentally is one of the greatest unsung heroes of chemistry given that the Nobel Prize cannot be handed out posthumously…but that's another tale. The point, explains Baird, is that W&C's model of DNA is itself a valid scientific element - in other words it is a result despite not being an experimentally measured set of data points.
With such a scientific result it is possible to interpret the properties of DNA and to make predictions about its behaviour. The W&C model is not only an artistic representation of the actual molecule - as aesthetically pleasing as it may be - but a device through which science can learn about the actual without the need to resort to abstract theory. Like other models and machines in science it can be manipulated and so is in fact crucial to the process of discovery.
While we're thinking about DNA, it is important to realise that biology provides a rather different philosophical perspective in science with the survival of the fittest, the struggle for survival, sex and death, being its main themes from the molecular level up to the organism. Physics too provides a view of the so-called heat death of the universe - the gradual entropic winding down of some huge machine. Chemistry, on the other hand, according to Theodor Benfey of Guilford College and the Chemical Heritage Foundation, is different and this is perhaps why it has presented a different set of challenges to those who want to think about it more deeply.
Rather than providing a view of struggling reality inexorably heading towards disorder and death, chemistry has always been about structure and beauty and if we consider the aims of the alchemists - life. After all, their search for beauty in the form of gold from base materials and the philosopher's stone that would bring them immortality was always about life and aesthetics, and admittedly money and power. Even today, there are many chemists side-tracked from the mundane task of adding to the vast database of knowledge when a beautiful structure surfaces from the seething mass of molecules in their laboratories. Just think of the fullerenes, for instance, and how their intrinsic symmetry has captured the essence of chemical beauty, even in the popular perception.
The very molecular structures offer immense food for thought. Ursula Klein of the Max Planck Institute for The History of Science in Berlin presents an argument that is concomitant with Baird's but steps back more than a century. She believes that the chemical formulae devised by Jacob Berzelius in the early nineteenth century were more than mere abbreviations and representations of previously existing knowledge.
She says that chemical formulae were in themselves tools - albeit paper ones - that could produce models of reactions and the constitution of organic substances. Analogously to Baird's consideration of instrumentation and the more esoteric devices, including the Watson-Crick model of DNA, chemical formulae in the nineteenth century helped chemists understand and consequently create chemistry itself. If I can mention the CAS registry once more without it sounding like an advert, try to imagine how difficult the task of handling just a handful of those 21million plus compounds would be without their chemical formulae - names and numbers are fine but the chemist's true creativity is demonstrated in the shape and structure of the molecules they create.
Just...think about it.
The ISPC site can be found at http://www.georgetown.edu/earleyj/ISPC.html.