Thursday, July 19, 2012

Is Chemistry Actually A Science?

It turns out that if it weren't for people searching for chemistry cartoons, incest or posts about cleavage about half the visits to this blog would disappear. So I gotta say "Welcome!" to those of you that like cartoons and boobies, this little blog would have closed down long ago without you.

Anyway, one  of the webcomics that I monitor is "Scenes from the Multiverse" for its science themed cartoons and the recent discovery of energy fluctuations that may be evidence of a trace from the Higg's boson showed up in the webcomic. It made me laugh and then I decided that it might be a nice little smirk to include in my atomic structure lecture for intro chem.

It would be a little addition that I could make when I introduce sub-atomic structure and the differences between fermions, bosons and those small irritating Mexican hairless dogs.

It did however get me to thinking about what defines a science as a discrete intellectual and philosophical entity.

It would appear that everyone is jumping on the "Science is a Continuum" / "Abolish the Departments" mentality but the one department that always seems to get "merged" is the chemistry department. Why is that? One could argue that this would be proof that Chemistry is indeed the Central Science. One could also argue that it is proof that Chemistry is in fact a Franken-science made from the margins and pieces of other true Sciences.

Indeed, one chemblogger who has successfully "gone pro" is the author of "The Curious Wavefunction" who in his maiden post on the Scientific American site addressed this issue. I would not want to put words in his mouth so will simply quote what he said:

"The overall aim is to point out the central place that chemistry has in our world and to demonstrate that it is very much the human science."

This resonates nicely with the thesis of an introductory chemistry text, "Chemistry: Human Activity, Chemical Reactivity" (that I have used the past couple of years) by Peter Mahaffey of Kings University College in Alberta, Canada. It is however, not one that I think fits the reality that we live in.

For the most part, we are somewhat defined by the company that we keep and one could argue that Chemistry is the Industrial Science, Physics is the Military Science and Biology is the Human Science. If we want to promote our science we can emphasize what happens at our margins but it would seem most responsible to me to focus (if not obsess) about what we do that actually pays the bills, keeps the lights on and buys the kibble. And for Chemistry that would be our intimate, and at times, frightening link with Industry.

But that still doesn't answer the question if Chemistry is a distinct or discrete science. As I thought about this I was reminded of a blog post by Chembark. I would argue that what allows a science to be distinct from the other sciences is the nature of the "God Question" that the science can uniquely address and answer. Does the science have at its core, key principles that allow it to address or know things that only God would know? Does the Science allow us to answer the snake in the Garden by saying "We are not "like God" we are Gods"?

Oppenheimer caught this when at Trinity he quoted from the Bhagavad-Gita

"Now I am become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds".

That, I think, would be an adequate philosophical place to start the discussion on whether or not Chemistry is a distinct science and as Chembark indicates for Chemistry that would be the Origin of Life. Oddly enough, our philosophical distinctiveness rests in an obscure and neglected backwater of our science that we would apparently like to hand over to the Biologists and the half-breed Biochemists so they can get even more Chemistry Nobel prizes.

Meanwhile, the Physicists have put their "God Question" at the forefront of their science and committed almost all their time and treasure to it. What will we learn from that?

50 Days to First Lecture, gotta go do something small, derivative and publishable. Keep Calm and Chemistry On.

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For a while it was all about research and then it was all about teaching and now it's all about trying to find a balance while teaching at a small liberal arts and science university.