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Structure and Explanation in the Sciences

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



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


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


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


Structure and Interdisciplinarity