28 No. 3
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The Tyranny of the Chemist
by Eric Scerri
In a recent book review, Peter Atkins draws attention to my use of the deliberately provocative phrase "the tyranny of the chemist" but immediately dismisses it by saying that readers will want to take issue with this notion.1 I think my view might not be so abhorrent to chemists, and I would like to take the opportunity to explain it here.
First, a comment about scientific theories and their discoverers: In science, the pioneer of any particular development does not hold the right to dictate the future course of the discovery. For example, once Schrödinger published his second-order differential equation of the electron in the hydrogen atom, others quickly seized upon it to develop what essentially became quantum chemistry. Schrödinger himself was apparently horrified by these developments, which he regarded as highly unimaginative.2 But his disapproval of what became of his brainchild did not prevent such later developments from taking place and being accepted.
Consider the members of any particular discipline who might make a discovery and wonder whether or not they have the right to pass judgment on what other scientists in other fields might do with their discoveries. Nobody doubts that the periodic system of the elements was discovered by chemists, although the very first recognition of periodicity among the elements seems to have been made by a French geologist, de Chancourtois. The other five discovers, Odling, Hinrichs, Newlands, Lothar Meyer, and, above all, Mendeleev, were all chemists. Does it follow that chemists retain the final say on how the periodic table should be represented or on the question of the placement of vexing elements like hydrogen and helium? Of course not!
And yet contemporary chemists do try to exercise a certain amount of "tyranny" when it comes to alternative forms of the periodic table or alternative placements of these elements. Chemists are perfectly willing to accept support from quantum mechanics when it lends fundamental support to the periodic system, which of course it does. Indeed, there were a number of prior developments in physics, such as the discovery of isotopy and of atomic number, that were readily accepted by chemists because they enriched our understanding of the periodic system rather than threatening it.
Nevertheless, in spite of accepting an explanation of the periodic system in terms of electronic configurations, chemists generally refuse to take any further leaps in accepting to place helium among the alkaline earths, for example, even though it has two outer-shell electrons. In addition, any suggestion that the left-step periodic system presents a more orderly representation of the elements is met with derision. Even more surprisingly, physicists themselves seem to acquiesce to this form of tyranny. Many group theoretical approaches to the periodic system call for a more orderly periodic system with two periods of two elements rather than just one. However, some physicists are willing to go to great lengths to modify their schemes in order to come out in agreement with the chemists’ demand for an anomalous first-period length that does not repeat, unlike all subsequent period lengths, which do.3
My point is this: If chemists are willing to invite the support of physics because it lends a fundamental underpinning to the periodic system, perhaps they should consider dropping their tyrannical attitude when it is suggested that helium is more appropriately placed among the alkaline earths in spite of its apparent kinship to the noble gases. In the article that Atkins was reviewing, as well as elsewhere, I have given additional reasons as to why such a placement is not as absurd as it may seem at first sight. (This is another story, although one that the reader may wish to pursue.4) Needless to say, and as I have written before, I am not suggesting that every reductive step taken by physics should be followed blindly by chemists.5 My aim here has been to suggest that there are instances when chemists do indeed behave a little like tyrants in believing that they alone can decide on matters relating to the periodic table.
Eric Scerri <email@example.com> teaches chemistry in the Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry at UCLA and is editor of the journal Foundations of Chemistry. His latest book, The Periodic Table: Its Story and Its Significance, will be published by Oxford University Press in November.
1. P. Atkins, Chemistry International 27(6), 27-28, 2005.
2. W.J. Moore, Schrödinger: Life and Thought, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1989.
3. V. Ostrovsky, Foundations of Chemistry 3, 145-81, 2003.
4. E.R. Scerri, "Some Aspects of the Metaphysics of Chemistry
and the Nature of the Elements," www.hyle.org/journal/issues/11-2/scerri.htm.
5. E.R. Scerri, in Of Minds and Molecules: New Philosophical Perspectives on Chemistry, N. Bhushan and S. Rosenfeld, eds., Oxford University Press, New York, 2000.
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