Ars Mutandi: Issues in Philosophy and History of Chemistry,
ed. by Nikos Psarros & Kostas Gavroglu, Leipziger Universitätsverlag,
Leipzig, 1999, iv + 190 pp. (ISBN 3-933240-89-1)
by Shawn B. Allin *
Ars Mutandi is a compilation of papers presented at the International
Conference on the Philosophy of Chemistry and Biochemistry and Adjacent
Historical Problems held in Athens, Greece during April 1996. The proceedings
are comprised of seventeen papers submitted by participants from eleven
different countries and may be divided into seven different sections; Falsificationism
and Chemistry (2 papers), Chemical Epistemology and History of Chemistry
(2 papers), Shaping Chemistry (4 papers), Chemical Entities (3 papers),
Chemistry and Quantum Mechanics (2 papers), Chemistry and Its Neighboring
Sciences (3 papers) and Chemical Heritage of the Ancient Greek World (1
paper). This wide variety of topics provides the reader with a great deal
to contemplate and ponder.
Ars Mutandi begins with a brief, four page, Introduction by the
editors. Nikos Psarros and Kostas Gavroglu provide the rationale behind
holding an international conference on the philosophy and history of chemistry
and discuss the increased level of attention the field is deservedly receiving.
My first reading of the Introduction caused significant concern because
of the poor level of English. Fortunately, the papers are well written
and highly polished. Hopefully, the Introduction will not scare any potential
readers away, as it is not indicative of the proceedings as a whole.
The first section, Falsificationism and Chemistry, involves F. Michael
Akeroyd (Bradford, UK) and Maureen Christie (Melbourne, Australia) taking
opposite sides of Popper’s idea of falsificationism. Akeroyd argues in
support of falsificationism in his paper "Popper and Biochemical Sciences"
with support from examples involving cell-free fermentation, pneumococcal
transformation, thermophilic bacteria and the isolation of enzymatic RNA.
Akeroyd concludes his argument that "a large portion of the history of
biochemistry supports the position of Karl Popper" (p. 4).
Christie take the opposite view and argues against Popper’s "asymmetry
between confirmation and falsification" (p. 7) in "Falsification and Direct
Confirmation in Scientific Theory Adoptions". She bases her argument on
an analysis of the Antarctic ozone hole and three competing explanations;
the presence of chlorinated compounds, a major climatic change, or increased
solar activity. Analysis of data resulted in the first hypothesis being
adapted because of the strong negative correlation between the ClO and
O3 mixing ratios. To Christie, this example refutes Popper’s
ideas because the first hypothesis was adopted through positive reaffirmation
and not falsification. The problem with her argument is that while valid
for the initial comparison of competing hypotheses, the strong negative
correlation does not prove the first hypothesis to be correct: it simple
makes it more tenable than the competing hypotheses. With the limited resources
available for studying the source of ozone depletion, focusing on the strongest
hypothesis was the only viable path to follow.
The second section, Chemical Epistemology and History of Chemistry,
includes contributions fromUrsula
Klein (Berlin, Germany), "Do We Need a Philosophy of Chemistry?" and Michael
Engel (Berlin, Germany), "Naturphilosophische Überzeugungen als forschungsleitendes
Motiv – Die asymmetrische Synthese von Pasteur bis Bredig". Klein’s analysis
of chemistry’s progress from focusing on a material’s physical properties
"into a coherent system embracing chemical substances and their transformation"
(p. 25) nicely outlines chemistry’s growth from a descriptive, into a synthetic,
In an effort to see German re-introduced as a language used in international
conferences, Engel’s contribution to the proceedings are in his mother
tongue, German. While this is a noble cause, he has done his scholarship
a disservice by limiting its audience to those who read German, or those
willing to find someone to translate. The consequences of his actions are
quite severe for young scholars in North America, as many doctoral programs
have eliminated their foreign language requirements. As a result, many
readers will simply skip Engel’s contribution. As the editors state in
their Introduction, "English is in fact the contemporary lingua franca,
which means that it is no more the possession of only a single nation,
but of the humanity as a whole" (p. ii).
The section on Shaping Chemistry contains the greatest number of contributed
articles and also incorporates the greatest variety of topics. Gennadiy
Kopylov (Moscow, Russia) discusses development and structure of the natural
sciences in "The Engineering World and Chemistry: An Outline of the Research
Programme"; Daniel Rothbart (Fairfax, USA) discusses the convolution of
experiment and theory in his "The ‘Design’ of Nature through Chemical Instrumentation";
Joseph Earley, Sr. (Washington, USA) comments on "the question of compound
individuals" (p. 75) in "How Do Chemists Know When ‘Many’ Become ‘One’?
Can Others Do It Too?"; and Rein Vihalemm (Tartu, Estonia) argues that
chemistry is distinct from both physics and biology in "Can Chemistry Be
Handled as its Own Type of Science?"
Rothbart’s article provides an excellent example of how philosophical
issues can be explored in the chemistry curriculum. For example, his statement,
"When data are acquired, abstract theoretical judgements are not all removed
from the experiment; rather, such judgements are channeled through the
instrument to solidify the formulation of the specimen’s universal character.
Through the mediation of the instrument, the physical real is united with
the conceptual real." makes a great discussion topic for an undergraduate
instrumental analysis course.
The forth section, Chemical Entities, includes "A Conceptual Profile
for Molecule and Molecular Structure" by Eduardo Mortimer and Luiz Otávio
Amaral (Belo Horizonte, Brazil); "Fullerenes: The Philosophical Aspects
of their Discovery" by Danuta Sobczynska (Pozna n´, Poland) and "Are
there Laws of Nature in Chemistry?" by Nikos Psarros (Marburg, Germany).
The first of these contributions explores the interesting question of what
is meant by ‘molecule’ or ‘molecular’. Specifically, the example of PF5
– a compound without a unique structure – and physical properties such
as melting point, dielectric constant and dilation are discussed. Again,
this is a rich source of material for discussion in undergraduate chemistry
Sobczynska’s article on the transformation of fullerenes from a theoretical
entity to an experimental one is a wonderful example of history in the
making. Finally, Psarros’ piece provides a wonderful comparison between
the results and consequences of an experiment.
The contributions of Vincenzo Aquilanti (Perugia, Italia) and Valeria
Mosini (Rome, Italia), respectively entitled "Sceptical Chemists in a World
of Atoms and Quanta" and "Wheland, Pauling and the Resonance Structures",
constitute the section on Chemistry and Quantum Mechanics. Both authors
have done an excellent job of dealing with chemistry issues and not falling
into the philosophy of physics paradigm. If the reader were still undecided
with respect to the need of philosophical studies of chemistry at this
point in the book, Aquilanti puts those fears to rest when he states, "no
expert in quantum mechanics can take the place of a chemist whose problems
arise from his direct experience of substances under specific experimental
conditions" (p. 120).
Similarly, Mosini’s comparison of realist and instrumentalist views
in her discussion of resonance structures underscores the significant contributions
that philosophical studies of chemistry offer. This article also contains
a wonderful comparison of the Valence Bond and Molecular Orbital theory’s
explanations of resonance structures during the first part of the 20th
century that proved enlightening and a joy to read.
The section on Chemistry and Its Neighboring Sciences contains three
articles, "In vitro vs. In vivo: The Problem of Justifying
the Biological Relevance of Biochemical Studies" by Roger Strand (Bergen,
Norway); "Research Practice of Modern Bioinorganic Chemistry and the Erotectic
Conception of Explanation" by Ewa Zielonacka-Lis (Poznan´, Poland);
and "A New Kind of Chemical Computer-based Chemical Conversions" by Lech
Schulz (Pozna n´, Poland). While each of these discussions is specific
to a chemistry sub-discipline, they each have wider implications upon further
examination. For example, Stand’s discussion of the relevance of In
vitro testing in an In vitro world can easily be extended to
the realm of computational chemistry where the results are only as accurate
as the theory. As computational speed and power continues to grow and we
become increasingly dependent upon simulations of the virtual-kind, these
issues will come to the forefront of philosophical discussion.
The final section, Chemical Heritage of the Ancient Greek World, contains
a single contribution entitled "Experimental Techniques and Laboratory
Apparatus in Ancient Greece" by Evangelina Varella (Thessaloniki, Greece).
While we often think of ancient Greece as the realm of philosophy and the
antithesis of science, Varella’s excerpts from the ancient literature highlight
the presence, and importance, of a variety of experimental techniques.
Although a valid argument may be made that the examples are of technology,
not science, it is interesting, and sobering, to read laboratory procedures
from a time past.
In conclusion, Ars Mutandi is a worthwhile addition to a personal,
or institutional, library. The issues discussed are varied with something
for everyone who is interested in the pertinent issues in the philosophy
of chemistry. Numerous articles lend themselves to inclusion in the undergraduate
curriculum as discussion pieces. This is an important aspect since a growing
awareness of philosophical issues will only occur if we expose our students
to their existence.
Shawn B. Allin:
Department of Chemistry & Physics, Lamar University, Beaumont,
TX 77710-0022, USA; firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright Ó 2001
by HYLE and Shawn B. Allin