Chemistry vs. Physics

As I was doing some more research on the American Chemical Society (ACS) in its early years, I have been particularly interested in the ways that these early professional academics tried to differentiate themselves from other fields.  In some ways, this goes back to the ideas on purity of a profession that I discussed earlier.  In particular, these early chemists seem to be particularly interested in separating themselves from the physicists.  Interestingly this is also a topic that showed up in some of my earlier work on query sampling of the Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS) corpus against the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  One of the most common articles similar to the was reductionism in biology, which discusses ways in which biology is reducible to chemistry and potentially reducible to physics.  Other common articles that came up in the query sampling were intertheory relations in physics which also discusses how chemistry may be reducible to physics.

Relations between chemistry and physics seem to date from at least the late nineteenth century. Benjamin Silliman (editor of the journal that eventually became Science) wrote a tribute to J. Lawrence Smith (president of ACS in 1877) in which he quotes a colleague of Smith’s at the University of Virginia who said that Smith “confined his lectures to chemistry proper, leaving physics to the professor in charge of that branch. This he did, I believe, of set purpose, with the result of his giving more chemistry in eight months than his predecessors had done, nominally, in nine” (p. 231).    Later, George F. Barker (president of ACS in 1891) dedicated his presidential address to defining boundaries between physics and chemistry where he said “If it be true that in both physics and chemistry, taken separately, precision of thought and consequent precision of language are dependent upon a precise use of terms, how much more true is it in that limiting region which lies between them.”

Clearly there is some more need for thinking through this complicated relationship between chemistry and physics.  In my earlier post, I had thought about doing some more work on query sampling between the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and a journal that would be equivalent to JACS for physics.  I think that this is an interesting intersection between the philosophy of science and the history of science.  In this case, computational methods like query sampling may be able to demonstrate how the journals are matching up with an established source on the philosophy of science, and historical approaches can help show how these debates are reflected in the historical record.

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