Abstract for an upcoming talk

Here are some things I’m going to talk about next week. It summarizes where I am in some of my thinking about dissertation research. If anyone wants to hear more and will be in Philadelphia, stop by!

Nanochemistry studies materials with at least one dimension in the nanoscale, usually defined as between 1-100 nm. Nanoscale materials display unusual optical, electromagnetic, and catalytic behaviors not observed in either molecular or macroscopic materials, such as surface plasmon resonance and quantum confinement. These behaviors can be tuned to perform in a wide variety of highly sensitive 21st-century technologies, including photovoltaics, biological labeling, digital displays, and drug delivery.

These behaviors are a product of nanoscale structural features of these materials, and most of the behaviors are influenced by the structure of a nanomaterial’s surface. Because a considerable fraction of the atoms in a nanomaterial belong to the surface layer of the material, surfaces in nanomaterials are unlike surfaces in macroscopic materials and so cannot be adequately described by standard models of macroscopic surfaces. Instead, aspects of both molecular and macroscopic theories are borrowed, with modifications, to form theoretical models of the structure and behavior of material surfaces at the nanoscale. This mixed-scale modeling is essential for proper characterization of nanoscale materials, and the resulting theoretical understanding of nanoscale surfaces suggests that standard philosophical accounts of theories and models in science fails to apply to nanoscience.  I recommend a reconceptualization of modeling that focuses on information passage between scales. This method is influenced by Wilson’s[1] and Batterman’s [2] recent suggestions for similar modeling strategies in physics, and I extend their suggestions in new directions.

Silver triangular nanoplates

This talk demonstrates the unusual relationship between surfaces, structure and behavior at the nanoscale by considering a class of nanomaterials known as anisotropic metal nanoparticles (AMNPs), which are monocrystalline metallic particles with well-defined morphologies such as cubes or triangular plates. These materials exhibit a behavior known as localized surface plasmon resonance (LSPR), which can be tuned by altering the size or shape of the particle to change its surface structure. Theoretical descriptions of AMNP surface structure 1) are highly sensitive to the scale of the system, 2) require multiple conflicting assumptions about the continuous and discrete nature of the material being modeled, and 3) rely heavily on mathematical structures that do not have clear physical analogs in the AMNP system. Most philosophical conceptions of relations between models at different scales fail to respect these features of nanoscale science.  This talk argues that a more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of the role of models is required for an accurate understanding of nanoscale science.


[1] Mark Wilson (2010). “Mixed Level Explanation,” Philosophy of Science 77(5).

[2] Robert Batterman (2011). “The Tyranny of Scales,” forthcoming in the Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Physics. Oxford Press.

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Philosophy of Technology?

Does anyone know of (historical or contemporary) accounts of philosophy of technology where the emphasis of the philosophical account is not on the human-object dialectic (in its metaphysical, ethical, social, or whatever other dimensions you like) but rather on the methodology of making artifacts, perhaps in juxtaposition with a methodology for accomplishing “pure” science? I’ve been conducting a survey over the past few days that has not proved fruitful, but I’m not sure I’m looking in the right places.

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What, Why and How

In a recent interview with Atlantic Monthly, the philosopher of physics Tim Maudlin gave an interesting response to the question of whether there can be a philosophy of dark energy:

There can be a philosophy of anything really, but it’s perhaps not as fancy as you’re making it out. The basic philosophical question, going back to Plato, is “What is x?” What is virtue? What is justice? What is matter? What is time? You can ask that about dark energy – what is it? And it’s a perfectly good question.

“What is it?” is a good philosophical question. But is it the basic philosophical question? Perhaps it depends on the interpretation. (I know, I know, this could devolve quickly into one of those annoying philososnob rants about “What is ‘is,’ really?” I’m going to try not to take it there.)

When I was an undergrad, I was taught that philosophy, broadly construed, falls into three categories, based on the kinds of questions that are answered in each category:

  1. Metaphysics asks and answers questions about what there is
  2. Epistemology asks and answers questions about what we know
  3. Ethics asks and answers questions about what to do

A fourth category of question came to the foreground in Western philosophy in the middle of the 20th century. Depending on who you talk to, this category might be called the inferential or the methodological category, and it asks and answers questions of how we know, rather than what we know. It’s debatable whether this category is wholly distinct from the epistemological category described above, and some people may even think the two are be collapsible into one another, if certain versions of constructivism are taken to (perhaps unflatteringly cartoonish) extremes.

In my dissertation, I’m interested in a less “basic” kind of how question: How do our theories and models help us make nanomaterials better? The emphasis here is on improving the method of making, not improving the material being made, although I will probably discuss both interpretations of the question. Answering the question, it seems, will require asking more “basic” questions in each of the categories identified above, and others that fall into multiple categories or none at all. The question “How do we make?” is not a typical question asked or answered by today’s philosophers, although perhaps it was, once upon a time (Heidegger, for instance, asserted that how something is made is just what the thing is, or at least what it appears to be: “Through bringing-forth the growing things of nature as well as whatever is completed through the crafts and the arts come at any given time to their appearance.”).

When I’m thinking about my dissertation, rather than actually writing it, though, I find myself confronted most often with another question entirely: Why should I care? I ask myself this question more often than any other (except, of course, Where did I leave my keys?). I am starting to come up with an answer I like for when I ask that question of my dissertation: Because nanoscience is revolutionizing the way we think about materials we use every day to compute, generate electricity, and cure disease, and there is a tangled and messy thicket of models and theories currently used to give us information about those materials. If we can untangle that thicket even a little bit, by clearing paths or putting up signposts along the way, we might get information faster or more reliably, which would allow us to use those materials more quickly, safely, and effectively.

There are many times when I ask myself “Why should I care, as a philosopher?” after reading a philosophical essay, and I don’t have a good answer. You’ve already heard plenty of my opinion on the negative consequences of purportedly philosophical essays failing to have answers to that question.

Questions have always been an important tool for philosophers (If you don’t believe me, just try picturing a Socratic dialogue without interrogatives). Maudlin’s “basic question” is, I believe, purposefully and cleverly vague: “What is it” seems to be an ontological question, at first glance, but to fully answer the question one must tell a story not only about what “it” is, but also what is known about it (for that will give information about the kind of “it” it is, which is needed to determine what it is), and how what-is-known is known, and what it does and what people should do with it.

Finally, I am convinced that a complete answer to the question “What is it” will have to say something about why we care what it is, an answer to why we would we bother to identify “it” as a thing (or process) distinct from other things in the first place. This is not to say we individually or socially construct the world out of thin air, but rather that we tend to divide up the world in ways that make it easier for us to work in it.

So for instance, it’s a common philosophical trope to point out that some Inuit tribes have 32 words for snow, but people who live in less snowy regions have only a few words for frozen precipitation. Why aren’t there more words for snow in Houston, for example? Because Houstonians don’t work with snow; they mostly stop traffic and shut down schools at the first sight of white stuff falling from the sky. They don’t need to know the difference between soft milik and crusty sillik because that difference won’t make a difference to what they do. While an Inuit looking outside for new igloo-building material will want an answer to “What is it” in terms demarcating milik from sillik, a Houstonian wanting to know whether there will be weather-related traffic delays only needs to answer “What is it” with “snow.” Answers to “What is it” will depend on why we care what it is.

This is not to say that our cares and concerns are independent of what there is out there–to deny that much is to deny that there is an external world influencing the way we work. I do not advocate extreme skepticism of this sort. Instead I want only to point out the clever vagueness, and some of the complicated intricacies, behind Maudlin’s identification of “What is it” as the basic philosophical question. I don’t see how the question can be extracted from another question I see as philosophically basic, namely why we care. And I think it is an interesting contrast in philosophical methodology to try asking “how” questions instead of “what” questions every now and then.

Thanks to Jeremy Dolan for bringing the Maudlin interview to my attention.

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Mathturbation and Gender in Philosophy of Physics

A number of people who read my last post have expressed interest in what my opinions on these subjects look like when I remove tongue from cheek. Since those opinions are vaguely related to the ways I have chosen to approach my own research, it seems reasonable to try to respond to these demands. So here we go:

Do I hate math? Am I just afraid of math? Do I really think math is not a useful philosophical tool? No, not usually, and no. I never said otherwise, although I did make my point last time a purposely provocative and sarcastic way, in large part because I wanted to play up this great image by the artist and sometime-Pixar animator Don Shank.

Here’s the straight-talk version: I like math. We are buddies. I often find myself thinking about math while I’m walking to campus or waiting in line at the grocery store. Usually the math I think about is group theory or crystal lattice systems, but sometimes it is the connectedness or orientability of various kinds of manifolds, or homogenization theory, or the simple elegance of bra-ket notation. I am not prejudiced against particular branches of math, although I admit I sometimes find learning completely new branches intimidating. But intimidating in the way I find going on a road trip without a GPS intimidating, not in the way I find getting diagnosed with a terrible disease intimidating. Learning new math is exciting and eye-opening, and often very rewarding, if I can just get comfortable with not knowing where I am or why I am there for a while and have faith that something good will come out at the end.

That last bit, that having faith that something good will come out at the end, that is what I find missing in some very particular styles of philosophy of physics. I have lost faith in the ability of math to do all of someone’s philosophical work for them, and I have read many papers where I feel like I have been duped into believing there is philosophical content, when all there is, is math. It took me a long time to recognize that sometimes—not always, but sometimes—I can’t see a philosophical point through a forest of equations because there is no philosophical point, not because I am too thick to follow an author’s point.

When I am learning math for the sake of learning math, then understanding an equation is its own reward. When I am learning math to try to understand someone’s philosophical point, there had damn well better be a philosophical point at the end of it, and the math had better be necessary to make the point. Otherwise, to return to the road-trip analogy, I’m going to feel like I just blew a tank of gas for nothing. Essays that purport to be philosophical but are really just math lessons, and essays that contain math lessons that have little to do with the paper’s philosophical point, are the ones I find objectionable and mathturbatory.

I have seen more mathturbation in philosophy of physics than elsewhere, but by no means do I believe it is confined to philosophy of physics. Nor do I believe all philosophers of physics either commit mathturbation or endorse mathturbation. Nor do I believe that mathturbators are terrible people who should be branded with a scarlet μ —but I do believe that mathturbation can be damaging to the progress of philosophy, whether it is of physics, of chemistry, of biology, or of law. Philosophers should use math as a tool for making philosophical arguments, not as a shiny distraction from the absence or failure of a philosophical argument.

It is a further point, one I return to frequently in this blog and elsewhere, that I feel an obligation to devote my energies to making philosophical arguments that I believe will make a difference: arguments that will give philosophers, scientists, or lay persons pause for reflection on the best approach to solving a problem whose solution will make a difference to the way science or human life is carried out. This is a deeply Pragmatic-with-a-capital-P view, one that I hope to defend in the dissertation I write as a break from these blog posts. I do not have an airtight defense for it yet, although it is an increasingly popular viewpoint in contemporary philosophy of science. Newly renewed appreciation for the view can be attributed in part, I think, to the feminist-inspired situated-science movement in philosophy of science. Which brings me to the second issue of interest here today.

Did I leave philosophy of physics because I am a woman? My previous post pointed to a sense of alienation from philosophy of physics that has analogues in standard stories of female alienation from various divisions of the natural sciences. Answering the very touchy question of whether philosophy of physics is inherently sexist requires a separation of content and culture,  first, so that it will be possible to understand to what extent culture shapes content and vice versa.

So, is the content of philosophy of physics sexist? On one hand, it hard to see how it could be. Unlike research in the life and social sciences, which can actually study things like women and men, physics looks at non-gendered particles, geometries, and fields. It would be crazy to say that reducing the number of degrees of freedom of a system is a chauvinist project, just as it would be crazy to say it is a feminist project.

On the other hand, much of the content of philosophy of physics, at least, largely ignores the broader implications of an argument’s conclusion. For instance, theses refuting some proposed attack on the GHZ theorem rarely frame their discussions in terms of whether or not our inability to recover classically-predicted information from the system should influence experimental design in quantum physics, whether the cryptographic technology that could come out of GHZ is technology that will ultimately endanger communities or societies. Rather, the theses often stop when GHZ has been adequately reinforced against future attacks.

This approach to content, this exclusion of broader discussions of why we should care about the GHZ theorem (or any point of contention in philosophy, much more broadly), has been acknowledged by feminist philosophers of science as problematic. A brief glance at Janet Kourany‘s CV or a Google Scholar search of titles by Sandra Harding offer some suggestions as to why: Feminist views on science are views of science as situated within some larger social context. Harding’s famous standpoint theory is one way of spelling out this cry for socially situated science.

The idea that science and its philosophy needs to pay attention to broader impacts, to use the NSF terminology, came out of feminist philosophy of science because one of the first places where the danger of failing to situate science was recognized was in gender studies in the social sciences. Whether or not that makes situated science inherently feminist, and non-situated science inherently chauvinist, is not a question I am prepared to answer.  It is hard to swallow the idea that chauvinism is built into the Standard Model simply because presentations of the Standard Model generally fail to discuss the impact of the (non-)discovery of the Higgs Boson on the economies of Switzerland and France.

So, as I see it, the question of whether the content of some philosophy of physics is sexist remains unresolved. I could probably be persuaded either way. Moving to the second, even thornier question, is the culture of philosophy of physics sexist? Well, based on my experience, I’m going to swing a solid bunt: My best answer is, “Probably yes, but that doesn’t make philosophers of physics terrible people, and most of them seem to mean very well.”*

It is a fact that there are fewer female than male philosophers of physics, by a very non-trivial margin. It is a fact that many of my (male and female) colleagues in philosophy of physics recognize and bemoan this inequity. It is a fact that no one has come up with a really good plan to systematically change the inequity. It is my opinion that the lack of such a plan is attributable in part to the community’s collective failure to figure out what exactly is going wrong.

Spoilers: I’m not going to do that here and now.

Really interesting book.

I do think the persistence of a mathturbatory culture will not help change things for women in philosophy of physics, and could in fact do more damage. This belief has recently been reinforced by reading a book on efforts to change the culture for women in the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University. The authors of that book argue that an over-emphasis on particular kinds of technical details of programming languages at the expense of discussion of how those languages could potentially effect positive change was one feature of the culture that was alienating to women trying to enter the field. (Other features included the gender disparity in prior computing experience upon entrance to SCS, the prevalence of single-minded “hacker culture”, and the lack of support systems aimed at encouraging young women in their pursuits.)

The lack of broader applicability of mathturbatory arguments is a problem for philosophy of physics. By analogy from the study at CMU, that lack of broader applicability could be perpetuating gender inequality in the field, over and above holding the field back from its potential to affect the future of physics research. 

And that is how I really feel about mathturbation.

*Note: Being terrible is what makes one a terrible person, not being a philosopher of physics. It is unfortunate to confuse the two.

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Five Reasons I Failed as a Philosopher of Physics

Those of you who know me know that once upon a time I wanted to be a physicist. That didn’t work, because it turns out that even if you go to a really great, liberal, high-quality-of-life undergraduate institution in Texas, sometimes your math teacher will try to evangelize you and make math-learning, and therefore physics-learning, really uncomfortable.

So then I decided to be a philosopher of physics, because hey, I still liked physics; I just didn’t want to sit through more of those math classes (and labs were really boring, except when I had a cute lab partner). And the failure of that decision to come fruition is why this blog about philosophy of chemistry, not philosophy of physics. Here are five reasons why:

  1. More Math Doesn’t Make Me Believe You More. This may in fact be intimately related to the my evangelization horror above. One trope of many philosophy of physics papers is to use math. A lot of math. More math than is really necessary. I am a bit loathe to point fingers at specific papers, but those of you who have read the philosophy of physics literature have undoubtedly come across this type of argument:

    I believe that grass is green. But Philosopher VanDerKitty has said grass is blue. Let the possible worlds in which grass is blue be defined by ‹M, tab, hab, Πstuff, Φ1,, . . ., Φ1472›, where M is a four-dimensional manifold, the other things are fancy symbols for really basic assumptions about the world that should be built into any assumption about any interesting possible world being compared to our own, like that it is spatially extended and that time exists there, and all the Φs are just there to make things look more complicated and make me look smart. They’re not actually going to do any work.

    Now, because of the Awesomeness theorem I just proved in the previous section of my paper that says that M must be exactly fourteen-dimensional in all worlds where grass is blue, and because Einstein showed, with my interpretive help, that all the  kinematically and dynamically possible worlds have either 4, 7, or uncountably many dimensions, grass cannot be blue.

    I have a word for this kind of argument. It’s not a nice one. The word is mathturbation, and I realized about a year and a half into graduate school that it did not get me off.

    Not what I want to be paid to do for the rest of my life.

    I can be persuaded by a lot of things. I can be persuaded by good mathematical arguments, like that objects with different toplogies have different surface energies because there is a connection between the shape of the surface, and the number of free bonds on that surface, and the number of free bonds on the surface is one way of quantifying the surface energy. Or things Lewis Carroll said. I wanted to be persuaded by mathturbatory arguments for a long time, even though I often felt dumb or unworthy when I didn’t immediately see the brilliance of any equation anyone put up on the board. I have lately come to the realization that my failure to see brilliant philosophy in mathturbation is not because of my inadequacy as a philosopher; it is because mathturbation does not, in general, contain brilliant or even interesting philosophy.  Trusting math to make an argument sound smarter is a bit like trusting a day to go by when you surf the internet and don’t see any videos of cats. Sometimes it happens, but it takes a lot of work and planning, and often ends up being more of a pain than it’s worth.

  2. I Am A Human Being. I live in a human-being-scaled world and I think about human-being-sized problems. Most philosophy of physics is done at the quantum scale or the cosomological scale, and the outcomes of philosophy of physics’ deepest puzzles will have, let’s be honest, very little bearing on how human beings live their day-to-day lives. If a philosopher of physics ever solves the measurement problem, or figures out the geometry of the universe, what bearing is it going to have on my day to day life? Will it make my milk last longer in the fridge? Will it stop cancer from robbing my loved ones of their health, lives, and happiness? Will it remedy the terrifying decline of American secondary school education?A lot of philosophy of physics has very little to do with the world people live in, which is a shame, since that world supported the training of very smart people to think about things like the measurement problem and the reconciliation of quantum field theory with relativity. Call me a communist, but it’s always seemed a little selfish, to me, to make use of all the resources that go into training someone to be a professional philosopher (we are all at least $300,000 investments by the time we are done with undergraduate and graduate school) and not use them to help other people.
  3. Physics is Too Pretty. The transcendent architecture of the Large Hadron Collider, the weird, false-color computer images of quantum confinement, the Escher-esque twistings and turnings of non-orientable manifolds. These are immensely beautiful creations that should be the objects of museum curators’ fawnings and Keatsian odes, not staid deconstruction aimed at producing some forceful if minor philosophical conclusion.While I am certainly in favor of the idea that we can see more beauty, not

    Thou, silent form! dost tease us out of thought

    less, in nature by understanding how natural objects come to be and what laws govern them, there is something inescapably sad about beginning with the iconic blueprint image of particles in a cloud chamber and ending with a lame note about the how the curl of the positron shows that natural kinds can only be understood with seventeen different kinds of taxonomical restrictions, or else our fundamental particle ontology is physically ill-founded (But of course we could just go to a field ontology instead and all our problems would go away).

  4. I Don’t Memorize Catalogues. A lot of philosophy of physics has to do with either the catalogue of fundamental particles in existence, often referred to as the Standard Model, or with an ever-expanding catalogue of possible geometric configurations of the universe. I, as it turns out, am not a catalogue person. I even had this poster hanging in my bedroom all through high school, and I never read it all the way through. I would rather have a pile of books around me than the best library catalogue in the world (which is decidedly NOT Pitt’s online library catalogue), because inside the books is where the excitement happens. But systematically internalizing the catalogue of fundamental particles, or of manifolds and the universes they describe, seems to be an integral part of many philosophers of physics’ initiation rites.Now now, I know. Isn’t the periodic table a catalogue? Well sure, but here’s a dirty little secret: I haven’t memorized that one either. I have looked at individual elements to figure out how some parts go together better or worse than others, and I have observed the relationship between behavioral trends of various elemental substances and their relative locations on the table. This is the kind of information that is needed to make new things out of the elements, not a complete memorized list of all the elements there are. In other words, Harry Potter is not a chemist just because he can sing the elements song. (It’s because he can make Polyjuice Potion)

    More to the point, chemistry is about making things, not cataloguing them, and that seems like a more interesting project to me.
  5. Every Time Someone Says ‘Hamiltonian’, I Think of This. It’s a horse. A pretty famous horse. One of the founding sires of modern harness racing. And then when people talk about solving Hamiltonians I start wondering what is wrong with the horse. Then I wonder if anything is wrong with my horse. Then I have a very brief and emotionally traumatizing panic attack in which I envision my horse dying at the hands of a Snively-Whiplash-esque villain named Herr Eigenfunction. Then I have to breathe deeply, talk myself out of running out of the room to go check on things at the barn, and remind myself to pay attention to whatever is being said. And by the time all that happens, I’m hopelessly lost.
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You Say You Want A Revolution?

Once upon time, back in the ’60s, there was this guy named Thomas Kuhn. Well, im sure he was around before and after the ’60s, but it was in the ’60s when he wrote a book called The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The book claimed that science proceeded in three main stages: normal science, crisis, and revolution. It used the words ‘paradigm‘, ‘anomaly‘, and ‘incommensurability‘ a lot. Sometimes philosophers like to claim that it is responsible for the modern use of the term ‘paradigm shift‘. Which he probably is.

Cover of the second edition of Structure.

The basic idea of Structure is deceptively simple, and it has become so engrained in contemporary philosophical thought that it hardly requires a detailed explication. But because it opposed the then-dominant view of how science progressed, it is worth remarking on the two contrasting pictures of scientific development. The canonical picture, before Kuhn, was of science ever bettering itself, grinding eternally forward toward some teleological end. At that end of science,every bit of knowledge of the natural world would be catalogued, connected systematically to every other part, both synchronously and diachronically. Most importantly, this knowledge would be built up from the same basic concepts and theories that have been the heritage of Western natural philosophy since before the time of Socrates.

This latter aspect of the view was the one against which Kuhn brooked his central arguments. He concluded, through arguments that will not be reconstructed here, that different theories purporting to describe the same phenomena can be, and often are, so conceptually divergent from one another that they cannot necessarily be said to be describing the same thing. In fact, the differences can be so vast that the theories can be said to be incommensurate, not even comparable in terms of their claims about the way the natural world works. Theories diverge from one another to become incommensurate when the earlier theory becomes so fraught with systematic errors, or anomalies, that a new theory is required to perform the calculations and supply the explanations that the old theory no longer can. The new theory contains concepts, equations, predictions, and experimental procedures not seen in the old theory. The incommensurability of theories can be seen in the differing paradigms, that is, world views or conceptual schemes, articulated by the different theories. This process of divergence is the shift described by the move from normal science through crisis and to revolution. The shift from the Newtonian (classical) to the Einsteinian (relativistic) theory of gravitation is generally hailed as the, ahem, paradigm case of scientific revolution.

Kuhn was a very smart man, and he got a lot of things right, as far as I am concerned. Part of power of his theory is the vagueness built into the definitions of each stage of science. He has been attacked for this vagueness before, so much so that in 1969, seven years after Structure came out, he wrote postscript aimed at clarifying some of the ambiguities that arose from the vagueness in the original definitions. Then followed a lot of quibbling from a lot of people over when exactly the number of anomalies grows so great that is causes a crisis and an ensuing revolution.

I think part of the reason that this quibbling continued for so long (indeed, well into the 21st century) is the fact that this picture fails to tell an adequately rich or interesting story about how working theories can evolve without generating a crisis and further revolution. In Kuhn’s story, theories are not terribly interesting things when they work: he calls this period of development normal science, and characterizes it by puzzle-solving activity, painting a picture of “normal” scientists as little more than highly-trained completers of crosswords.

This can't be all there is to "normal" science.

This picture isn’t fair to scientists, and it fails to capture a very important stage of the evolution of theories, namely the extension of a theory to a new domain of application. This stage of theoretical development has not been adequately appreciated by contemporary philosophers of science, which is problem for them. Here’s why: one of the things we as a culture rely most heavily on science to do for us is to reveal the miraculous and previously unexpected relations between parts of the natural world and to figure out how to use these revelations to improve the quality of human life. The job of philosophers of science should be to tell the story of how science can do that for us, and to provide well-reasoned suggestions for how scientists might do it better or how non-scientists might understand the aims, ends, or implications of scientific endeavors. Extending a theory to a new domain of application changes the story of the theory and, often, the aims, ends, and implications available in light of the theory. So understanding what happens when a theory is extended to a new domain is an essential part of responsible philosophy of science.

Okay, this is getting very abstract and high-fallutin’ and I am asking you to ingest a lot on faith alone right now. I think the point I’m trying to make will be easier to see in light of a specific example of what happens when a theory is extended to a new domain. Now that you know where I’m going with it, let’s delve into the example itself.

Not actually one-billionth of a meter thick in any direction.

“Nano” is one of the hottest pop-sci buzzwords around these days. The prefix technically means .000000001, one-billionth, and is most often applied to meters. And Apple devices. In chemistry, nanoscale materials are materials where at least one dimension is between 1 and 100 nanometers thick. These materials are of particular interest because they display properties that differ in systematic and useful ways from materials that are made of the same substances at larger dimensions.

Nothing like a bowl of graphene flakes to start your day off right!

For instance, take graphene. This potentially-revolutionary material is nothing more than carbon atoms, arranged in a very thin, honeycomb-patterned sheet. It won the 2010 Nobel prize in physics, and it has the potential to dramatically affect electronics, gas detection, and a host of other areas of scientific and industrial development. What makes graphene so interesting is the electronic properties that arise when carbon atoms are arranged hexagonally in a single sheet, as opposed to in many sheets (which would be graphite, or pencil lead) or in crystalline (diamond) or amorphous (coal) forms. I won’t bore you with the details here, but the basic gist is that when one puts most of the atoms in a material on the surface of the material, as one does in the case of graphene, weird things happen. Specifically, for graphene as compared with bulk-material graphite, electrical conductance changes by narrowing the average bandgap between the highest-occupied and lowest-unoccupied orbitals of the carbon atoms, allowing for more ready creation of excitons and other fancy-sounding electrical-conductance stuff.

Wavy lines depicting the electronic structure of graphene. For actual explanation, go here.

So that’s graphene, and here’s the thing: no theoretical revolution was needed to make, describe, explain, or use it! *BUT* neither was the synthesizing, characterizing, and outlining of applications for the stuff mere puzzle-solving: it required deep and genuine creativity to manipulate existing synthesis methods in order to grow the very thin, very sensitive material, not to mention all the nanomaterials that preceded it, and to find the right parts of electronic and chemical bonding theories that were needed to explain what was going on in the thin honeycomb-sheet. What’s more, the theories used to characterize the new materials evolve during this extension: new, systematic kinds of predictions and connections between phenomena appear in the nanoscale that would not have been predictable from the tenets of the original theory.

I can’t defend this claim in full yet, because that’s a big part of my dissertation, which is not, well, written yet. But let me try to explain a little by way of example. Coming back to graphene, the original bonding theory used to predict molecular geometries, bond energies, and other properties of interest for those studying materials, relied on the background assumption that the bonds exist within a bulk material. As I mentioned earlier, the electronic properties of graphene, which are intimately connected to the bond structure of the material, change dramatically from the bulk to the nano. So the theory modeling the bonding behavior in graphene, and of the electronic properties that rely on that bonding behavior, changes with the change in the material’s scale.

I’m not sure what to call this transformation of theories yet, but revolution is not it.

One final note. One of the biggest problems with the “puzzle-solving” moniker is the implied deterministic resolution of the affair: with most puzzles, be they crossword, sudoku, jigsaw, or LSAT logic puzzles, there is exactly one solution, and the only challenge is narrowing down what it is. Applying this characterization to a majority of scientific practice minimizes the creative efforts required, and the choice of alternate possible outcomes selected between,  in the application of theory to a new problem or set of problems.

Fin. For now.

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Methodology As Ontology

So here’s an idea I’ve been thinking about lately.

The ways we see things are dependent on the ways we do things. 

Not just on the kinds of structures in our heads or the kinds of scales at which we tend to observe our world, but also really deeply on the projects we take up and the reasons we have for doing those projects. The things we create, and the paths we take to create them, become integral parts of the world we live in. I want to prove this point by telling stories about chemistry. 

In these stories, the fruits of studying, manipulating, and ultimately using a material are not dictated by a disinterested world, but by the procedures used to investigate and employ the thing. The combination of procedures used makes the material by defining a framework in which we can separate that stuff from the rest of the stuffs in the world. 

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A Different Kind of Reaction

UPDATE: The ad was pulled! Thanks to all who helped.

This blog is usually about philosophy and chemistry, but today more pressing matters are at hand. The Pennsylvania State Liquor Control Board (Our taxpayer dollars at work!) has started a new campaign against teen drinking. The message? Choosing to drink makes it your fault that you or your friends get raped.

THIS IS NOT OKAY. I’m far from the first to point it out (See Jezebel’s story for a summary), but I am a Pennsylvania taxpayer and I would like my money not to go to promoting rape culture. So I sent a letter to Control Tonight (contact@controltonight.com) and Pennsylvania’s Responsible Alcohol Management Program (ra-lbramp@pa.gov), and if you are offended by this ad, you should too. You can even send the letter I sent! But you should probably change the signature to your own name, for maximum effectiveness. Here it is:

To Whom it May Concern:

I recently viewed one of your Control Tonight campaign ads against
teen drinking, in which a pair of apparently female legs are sprawled
across a tile floor with underwear around the ankles and a message
reading “02:19A.M. She didn’t want to, but she couldn’t say no.” As a
Pennsylvania resident and taxpayer, not to mention an educator and a
victim of sexual assault, I find this advertisement incredibly
offensive and potentially harmful to the very demographic it is
purporting to protect.

The advertisement implies that unwanted sexual advances are the fault
of the victim, not the assailant, and that victims of sexual assault
are only to be held blameless insofar as they are sober, if ever.
Rape, and sexual assault more generally, are not the results of
actions controlled by the victim–and that includes the victim’s
choice whether or not to have a drink that night. This fact is part of
the definition of assault, and your advertisement’s insinuation
otherwise is not only emotionally hurtful and false, but it is also
potentially dangerous in its implicit excusing of sexual predators for
their actions, as long as their victims have had something to drink.

Tonight, you have made me feel ashamed to call myself a Pennsylvanian.
If you actually care about the young women of Pennsylvania, I demand
that you reconsider your campaign: Pull this advertisement and those
like it from circulation immediately.

Regards,
Julia Bursten

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Different Kind of Reaction

This blog is usually about philosophy and chemistry, but today more pressing matters are at hand. The Pennsylvania State Liquor Control Board (Our taxpayer dollars at work!) has started a new campaign against teen drinking. The message? Choosing to drink makes it your fault that you or your friends get raped.

THIS IS NOT OKAY. I’m far from the first to point it out (See Jezebel’s story for a summary), but I am a Pennsylvania taxpayer and I would like my money not to go to promoting rape culture. So I sent a letter to Control Tonight (contact@controltonight.com) and Pennsylvania’s Responsible Alcohol Management Program (ra-lbramp@pa.gov), and if you are offended by this ad, you should too. You can even send the letter I sent! But you should probably change the signature to your own name, for maximum effectiveness. Here it is:

To Whom it May Concern:

I recently viewed one of your Control Tonight campaign ads against
teen drinking, in which a pair of apparently female legs are sprawled
across a tile floor with underwear around the ankles and a message
reading “02:19A.M. She didn’t want to, but she couldn’t say no.” As a
Pennsylvania resident and taxpayer, not to mention an educator and a
victim of sexual assault, I find this advertisement incredibly
offensive and potentially harmful to the very demographic it is
purporting to protect.

The advertisement implies that unwanted sexual advances are the fault
of the victim, not the assailant, and that victims of sexual assault
are only to be held blameless insofar as they are sober, if ever.
Rape, and sexual assault more generally, are not the results of
actions controlled by the victim–and that includes the victim’s
choice whether or not to have a drink that night. This fact is part of
the definition of assault, and your advertisement’s insinuation
otherwise is not only emotionally hurtful and false, but it is also
potentially dangerous in its implicit excusing of sexual predators for
their actions, as long as their victims have had something to drink.

Tonight, you have made me feel ashamed to call myself a Pennsylvanian.
If you actually care about the young women of Pennsylvania, I demand
that you reconsider your campaign: Pull this advertisement and those
like it from circulation immediately.

Regards,
Julia Bursten

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The problem with lazy pluralism

Here is an excerpt from a current draft of my prospectus. It probably won’t stay in my dissertation, but it is something I feel pretty strongly about these days. Note: nothing specifically chemical here.

There is a trend in current philosophy of science toward understanding science pluralistically, which is in part a reaction against the strong unification theses that dominated the literature during most of the 20th century. Many excellent treatises on the need for pluralism and the mechanics of pluralism have surfaced in recent years, and I do not aim to recount them all in detail here. The basic message behind these pluralistic treatises is that science does not consist of only one method, one set of aims, or one group of concepts. Stronger versions of the thesis argue that there is no such thing as the scientific method or the scientific enterprise and that such unified talk must be abandoned altogether, where milder versions urge instead that the meanings of these terms must simply be themselves understood pluralistically.

Pluralism is generally introduced as one way of solving the very messy problem of how to relate scientific theories to one another. It has been justifiably embraced as a more reasonable alternative than the unificationists’ solution, which was to try to collapse all scientific theories into one grand unified theory, in which phenomena from photosynthesis to sleep apnea were to be understood best in terms of physical concepts and mechanical interactions alone. While the unificationist solution has generally fallen into disfavor, it is not clear that most accounts of pluralism have in fact offered a viable alternative: many accounts of pluralism leave off with the negative thesis, namely that scientific theories should not be related by universal unification, and do not go on to say much of anything about how they should be related.

Leaving pluralism lie here, on the negative thesis, does not solve the problem of relating theories to one another, and letting the problem remain unsolved could have subtly insidious effects on science itself. One way of interpreting pluralist accounts that stop the buck at the negative thesis is by understanding them as conceding that scientific theories need not be related to one another at all — if someone happens to find a connection, good on them, but searching for such relations is perhaps not all that important to scientific endeavors. The problem, then, is just a red herring, and the solution is simply to encourage philosophers and scientists to focus their energies elsewhere.

This attitude, if it becomes prevalent in the philosophical or scientific communities, will do damage to our ability to understand natural systems and use this understanding to solve problems. Permitting pluralistic accounts to bottom out in this let-a-thousand-flowers-bloom approach to the care and keeping of theories will discourage the search for relations between theories — and it is exactly this sort of search that can lead to revolutions in our understanding of scientific systems. Without the drive to connect theories to one another, Maxwell would not have had any motivation to describe the relation between electricity and magnetism, nor Mendel the relation between reproduction and phenotype, nor Pauling the relation between chemical bonds and the quantum theory of the electron. It is not clear that the fields of molecular biology or neuroscience, whose theories connect chemistry to biology and psychology to biology, respectively, should ever have been born under such an inauspicious regime.

The problem with such an attitude, at heart, is that it discourages a certain kind of curiosity that is a hallmark of scientific discovery. It is worth mentioning that a similar attitude has been identified by critics of intelligent design theory: the argument goes that the attribution of the complexity of an evolved system to the unknowable machinations of an intelligent designer discourages the search for further information about how natural systems have evolved their complexities. Any move that discourages the curiosity needed to do good science is a bad move in my book.

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