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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Past Events

Structure and Explanation in the Sciences - Workshop (Day 2)

Joachim Room, College of St Hild and St Bede, Professor Mike Glazer (Oxford University); Professor Catherine Jackson (University of Wisconsin-Madison); Professor Thomas Vogt (University of South Carolina, and IAS Fellow)

Across the material sciences, theories describing the structure of various kinds of matter are central to understanding their chemical and physical behaviour. This workshop aims to bring together historians, philosophers and scientists to discuss the historical development of these theories, and the foundational questions to which they give rise.

A paradigmatic example of structural explanation is provided by organic chemistry. Beginning in the 1860s, chemists proposed molecular structures for organic substances, based on sophisticated inferences about the number of distinct isomers that could be separated, and their chemical behaviour. The following facts are striking: (i) the molecular structures were represented visually; (ii) initially, no assumptions were made concerning how these ‘chemical graphs’ were embedded in space; (iii) there was no physical account of the forces holding molecules together. In short, the chemical bond was an unexplained explainer until well into the twentieth century. Crystallography developed quite independently, treating crystals as close-packed arrays of atoms or ions governed by physical interactions.

From the 1930s onwards, physicists and chemists developed quantum-mechanical models which seemed to explain the stability of simple molecules. Had the chemical bond thereby been explained? Some chemists, such as Linus Pauling, recognised that their own work put the chemical bond into quantum mechanics ‘by hand’. Pauling therefore regarded the new field of quantum chemistry as a synthesis of chemistry and quantum mechanics. Others, such as Charles Coulson, wondered if more sophisticated quantum-mechanical treatments would enable chemistry to ‘outgrow’ the classical bond.
This two-day workshop will address the following questions:

  1. How far can development of theories of structure within particular scientific fields such as crystallography and organic chemistry be understood as the orderly accumulation of theory and experiment? Or must later theoretical developments (such as quantum mechanics) be regarded as revolutionary, sweeping away the earlier conceptions of structure?
  2. How far do conceptions of structure differ between different scientific fields, such as crystallography, molecular biology and organic chemistry?
  3. How have conceptions of structure been shaped by the development of experimental methods, from X-ray crystallography through infra-red and NMR spectroscopy to scanning probe microscopy?
  4. How do these structural theories bear on longstanding questions in metaphysics, concerning reduction and emergence, and the existence and identity of composite objects?

Confirmed External Participants include: A M Glazer, Department of Physics, University of Oxford; Catherine Jackson, Department of the History of Science, University of Wisconsin-Madison; and Thomas Vogt, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, University of South Carolina (IAS Fellow, January-March 2018).

Attendance at the workshop is open, but places are limited and registration is required. For details please contact the workshop organiser, Professor Robin Hendry,

Contact for more information about this event.