Reacting to Joining the Blogosphere

Welcome to Reaction Crate, the internet home of me, Julia. I am just moving in and unsure where all my furniture goes, both figuratively on this blog and literally in my beautiful new home, whose name is Sexitecture (explanatory post to follow sometime). So let me lay down the first major piece of intellectual internet furniture, the introductory post to this blog.

Chemical things will happen here, if all goes according to plan. I am currently carving out a niche for myself in my professional life by focusing my research interests in philosophy and history of post-quantum-revolution chemistry. You can read a little more about what I’ve done to that end at my Google site here: Julia’s Google Page and in the feature on me in the really lovely Linus Pauling Blog.

For the next while, anyway, you’ll be hearing a lot about the following topics: Chemical kinds and chemical microstructure, Linus Pauling and the bent-equivalent model of the double bond, and the trials and tribulations of my first semester teaching independently. Here’s a quick rundown on each:


I had the good fortune to be selected as a Linus Pauling Resident Scholar this year, which meant I packed up all my underwear and moved to Oregon for a month to work at the Linus and Ava Helen Pauling Papers at Special Collections at Oregon State University. It was a surreal and wonderful experience, and I cannot thank Cliff Mead and the Special Collections staff enough for all of their kindness and help in making my first extended archival visit a smashing success. I spent my Oregon month poring through boxes upon boxes of old letters, manuscript notes, research notebooks, Christmas cards, family photos, and other sorts of paper-based records belonging to Linus and Ava Helen.

(In case you’re wondering, the reason the papers are at Oregon State is because Linus did his undergraduate work there, back when it was Oregon Agricultural College, and he met Ava Helen there. For more tidbits of this sort, I highly recommend Tom Hager’s biography of Pauling, Force of Nature.)

I was looking for information on Pauling’s model of the double bond, trying to answer the question “Why did he think it was structured this way and not some other way?,” a relevant question given that the vast majority of chemists think it is structured some other way, and Pauling was a smart guy, so he probably didn’t just make a big dumb gaffe about it. But it turned out that this wasn’t the most interesting question to ask, because what was more fascinating than asking why Pauling thought the structure was a particular way — namely, bent-equivalent — was asking why he defended it when he did, in 1958-1960, well after the main conflict between his model and the other guys’ first came to the surface. Answering that question in full means talking about commies and Lysenko-era science, nuclear disarmament, Bertrand Russell, August Kekulé, the race for DNA’s structure, and Pauling’s relationship with his student Edgar Bright Wilson (who goes by Bright, and thus has one of the best names in science), as well as some really high-level technical discussions of potential wells and restricted rotation in molecules, and some questionable a priori arguments about preferring simplicity and a systematic aufbau in the development of a theory of bonding. The paper I am developing out of this research will talk about the science more than the politics and Pauling’s anti-war activities, so I may end up writing more about those here.

Chemical Microstructure:

This is the current philosophical project. I am worried about the way chemistry is used in discussions of natural kind terms (or, for the anti-realists in the room, scientific kind terms) and about the stories that are currently being told about what relations we can use to identify or distinguish chemical substances from one another. The aim of the project is to develop a more sophisticated account of what counts as chemical microstructure and use that account to show how chemical kinds should be individuated from one another. Sometimes I lose sight of why any of this matters, but I think it will end up challenging some preconceptions about reference in the sciences or at least make philosophers think twice before writing off microstructure as the essence of a kind term just because Putnam was a sloppy writer.

Did I get ahead of myself? Probably. Unfortunately, with this project I seem to be unable to stop that from happening. I’ll write more about the grander aims for a theory of chemical-structural-realism, or at least for showing how chemistry can provide support for Worrall-style structural realism (and how it cannot provide the same support for competing views on the ontological status of scientific objects), another time. For now, let’s just get you caught up on the account of chemical microstructure.

A lot of philosophers have said really unfair things about the way chemical microstructure works. I am trying to fix this unfairness by writing a paper about how chemical microstructure actually works. My big innovation is to include molecular geometry among the things that make a structure what it is and allow us to distinguish one microstructure — and thus one substance — from another.

The main problem you see in most discussions of chemical microstructure is the tendency to oversimplify what counts as chemical microstructure. They give examples — Kripke’s famous “gold is the thing with the atomic number 79” line, and Putnam’s infamous “water is H2O.” Later philosophers attack those examples, especially Putnam’s, pointing out that water actually has a bunch of ions (as the H2O molecules disassociate and reassociate frequently) and impurities and so it cannot simply be H2O. Another attack is the one on Kripke that says, sure “atomic number 79” is all well and good to pick out gold, but you can’t say the same thing about substances made from other elements: diamond is not the thing with the atomic number 6; it is just one of many things with the atomic number 6 (graphite is another).

So I’m going to swoop in with my molecular-geometry bit and talk about how we need to take account of spatial relations between atoms in order to individuate a substance. It’s microstructure, but not the super-reductive nothing-bigger-than-an-atom-needs-to-be-discussed microstructure that some people think Kripke and Putnam were advocating. I’m still working on the details, and this post is mainly procrastination from doing just that. I’ll check back in about it later. For those working on similar projects, though, I should mention that I am spending a fair bit of time in the essay discussing LaPorte and Needham, and my views are fairly close to Robin Hendry’s.


Teaching is scary and fun. I am running a course called Myth and Science about the Greek philosophers and the people who preceded and succeeded them. The class is intro-level, 2.5 hours, once a week, and I struggle to figure out what I’m supposed to do to fill that time successfully and productively. You’ll hear more about it once I’ve done something besides handing out the syllabus.

That’s the rundown. Welcome to Reaction Crate.


About burstenj

Assistant Professor of Philosophy
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3 Responses to Reacting to Joining the Blogosphere

  1. Namnezia says:

    Looking forward to your posts! Welcome to blog-land (a couple of months late).

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