Thursday, November 22, 2012

Structure in Chemistry and Biology workshop



The aim of the workshop is to bring philosophers and scientists together to probe fundamental questions about the role and status of appeals to structure in chemistry and biology.

Philosophers will be interested in what structure is and what various structures, from the macroscopic structures of crystals to the quantum mechanical structures involved in the physicists characterisation of molecules, have in common. They will ask whether one kind of structure is more fundamental than another, and whether chemistry and molecular biology are reducible to physics and they will wonder whether some are all of the structures invoked by chemists and biologists are useful fictions rather than depictions of states of affairs existing in reality.

Chemists and biologists typically find the level of abstraction involved in the talk of philosophers strange and mystifying. Yet the kinds of problems involving structure addressed by some philosophers of science appear in a tangible form in their work. There is not one, but a range of, characterisations of the structure of molecules (eg. interatomic geometry vs bond topology) and there is no general agreement about how these are related and which is more fundamental. Chemists do not agree on what the best representation of the benzene molecule is. They do not know how to reconcile the fact that glass has the amorphous structure of a liquid with the fact that the business end of golf clubs can be tailor-made from glass. Biologists wrestle with the question of how to relate the static picture of the structure of a protein or sugar and the dynamics of their actions that typically take place in solution.

Robin Hendry, from the University of Durham, is a leading international figure in the philosophy of chemistry. He will introduce some of the basic questions concerning structure at the beginning of the workshop. Then he will explore these issues by joining forces with some leading Australian scientists who deal with structure in their work.

If you would like to participate in the workshop, please contact Alan Chalmers, or Debbie Castle Unit for History and Philosophy of Science, University of Sydney

Thursday, September 13, 2012


AAHPSSS's 2012  DYASON LECTURE will be presented by:
Warwick Anderson

“ Fashioning the Immunological Self: The Biological Individuality of F. Macfarlane Burnet”.
During the 1940s and 1950s, the Australian microbiologist F. Macfarlane Burnet sought a biologically plausible explanation of antibody production. In this talk, I seek to recover the conceptual pathways that Burnet followed in his immunological theorizing. In so doing, I emphasize the influence of philosophical speculations on individuality, especially those of Alfred North Whitehead; the impact of cybernetics and information theory; and the contributions of clinical research into autoimmune disease at Melbourne. Accordingly, this talk describes an intellectual arc distinct from most other tracings of Burnet’s conceptual development, which focus on his early bacteriophage research and his fascination with the work of Julian Huxley and other biologists in the 1920s. No doubt these were potent influences, but they seem insufficient to explain Burnet’s sudden enthusiasm in the 1940s for immunological definitions of self and not-self. I want to demonstrate here how Burnet’s deep involvement in philosophical biology—along with ineluctable clinical entanglements—shaped his immunological theories.

WHERE: Eastern Avenue Lecture Theatre
WHEN: Thursday, 27 Sept, 6.30-8pm

The event is free and all are very welcome.

Call for Applications for Visiting Fellowships at the Sydney Centre for the Foundations of Science

We are currently inviting applications for one-semester visiting fellowships at The University of Sydney, for either second semester (August to November) 2013 or first semester (February to May) 2014. This program is associated with The Sydney Centre for the Foundations of Science (SCFS), a research centre promoting work into the logical, philosophical, and historical foundations of science (further details below). We are hoping to receive applications from leading historians and philosophers of science (including the special sciences and biomedical sciences) at any post-PhD career stage. This is the sixth round of such fellowships and we anticipate being able to offer them each year.

Up to four fellowships are available, and each fellowship will come with a travelling allowance of up to AUD 6,000. These fellowships will provide opportunities for academics on sabbatical from their home institution to spend a semester in a productive and collegial research environment (in a beautiful city), to work with members of the SCFS and with other visiting fellows. It is important that the applicant has a position at their home institution that extends beyond the term of the intended stay in Sydney and is on salary from their home institution for the duration of their intended stay. The allowance is to help offset some of the travelling and living-away-from-home expenses; it is not a salary. The successful applicants will be expected to work on a specific research project currently being conducted in the  SCFS. See the SCFS website for current research projects. One of the aims of the SCFS is to strengthen international links in history and philosophy of science, so expressions of interest from researchers outside Australia are particularly encouraged.

Applications should including a cover letter, a CV, an indication of which of the current research projects you intend to work on and what your contribution to that project will be. Applications should be sent electronically to:

Dr Rodney Taveira
Administrative Officer
Sydney Centre for the Foundations of Science
School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry
A14, Main Quadrangle
University of Sydney
Sydney, NSW, 2006

by 14th November 2012. Applicants will be informed of decisions by 19th December 2012.

About The Sydney Centre for the Foundations of Science
The SCFS is an interdisciplinary research centre at the University of Sydney. We draw together researchers from philosophy, history, history and philosophy of science, science and medicine, with research concentrations in and around foundations of physics, decision theory, history and philosophy of biology, history of early modern science, history of medicine, and decision theory. Senior members of the SCFS include, Warwick Anderson, Stephen Bartlett, Alison Bashford, David Braddon-Mitchell, Mark Colyvan, Clio Cresswell, Ofer Gal, Stephen Garton, Stephen Gaukroger, Paul Griffiths, Ian Kerridge, Dominic Murphy, Maureen O'Malley, Hans Pols, Dean Rickles, Nick Smith, and Karola Stotz. We also have a number of mid-career and junior faculty, as well as several postdoctoral fellows and graduate students associated with the SCFS. Further details can be found on our website:

Friday, September 7, 2012

Report on Integration workshop

Former SCFS Visitor Sara Green and Prof Olaf Wolkenhauer have written a report on the recent "Integration in Biology and Biomedicine" workshop, held by the SCFS at the University of Sydney in May 2012. You can find a copy of the report here: Many thanks to Sara and Olaf for their efforts!

Friday, May 11, 2012

Flock of Dodos film screening

Visiting Fellow Steven Orzack appears in and will be discussing, along with Paul Griffiths, Flock of Dodos, a film which looks at how and why the debate over evolution has changed. The film will be screened at 6.00pm, Monday 14 May at the Eastern Av. Auditorium, and will be followed by a panel discussion including Steven and Paul and the film's director, Randy Olson.
Co-presented with Sydney Ideas and the School of Biological Sciences

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Conference report: Integration in Biology and Biomedicine, Sydney, May 3-4 2012

A personal view of the meeting from Paul Griffiths

Major new research initiatives at the University of Sydney emphasise the ‘integrative’ nature of their work. This conference focused on what ‘integration’ is and how it can be facilitated. Participants were leading Sydney scientists, philosophers of science whose recent work has focused on integration, and social scientists studying integration and developing practical interventions to promote integration. The conference was jointly supported by the Sydney Centre for the Foundations of Science, the Charles Perkins Centre, and the Institute for Sustainable Solutions. The conference program is available here.

A key concept at the meeting was ‘translational integration’, a term introduced by Sabina Leonelli. This is a very different conception of integration from that found in from traditional accounts of the reduction of one science to another, or of the ‘unity of science’, and also differs from more recent work on the emergence of new fields at the intersection of different disciplines. These differences can be brought out using some apparatus introduced at the meeting by Todd Grantham: to see what is meant by ‘integration’ in any given context it is necessary to identity the units that are being integrated, the nature of the connections made between them, and the purpose for which they are being connected. Traditional discussion of reduction and the unity of science focused on scientific theories or models of broad application – units that constitute the major achievements of scientific disciplines. The connections between these units were on the same scale, with the ‘reduction’ of one theory or model to another being particularly prominent. The aim of integration was to clarify the overall structure of scientific knowledge. This is very different from translational integration.

The units of translational integration are methods, data, and specific results (or even hypotheses). The ways they are connected are often temporary and only locally valid, and the aim of integration is to design interventions. Integration of the results of research might seem an odd idea in a discussion which has often focused on integrating diverse elements in the process of research, but it does seem to be what is intended in some talk of 'integrative research. For example, in research on obesity, we have findings from, to choose just a few fields, molecular biology, physiology, social science findings about the (in)effectiveness of education programs, information on the price elasticities of different foods, epidemiological  data on obesity in domestic pets paralleling that in humans, etc, etc.  Treated in isolation, these may support very different recommendations about what to do to improve health. One reason to describe research as ‘integrative’ is if it tries to articulate these diverse findings to make a case for trialling particular interventions  This seems to capture what is intended by some references to ‘integrative research’ in the research initiatives which sponsored the conference. It is also something along these lines that the social scientists at the meeting have been seeking to facilitate.

Gabrielle Bammer’s presentation of ‘integration and implementation sciences’ described a systematic approach to delivering integrative research. She assumed that such research will be problem-oriented, and emphasised that a major issue in translational integration is that knowledge is incomplete, so that part of translational integration is the management of unknowns. The aim of translational integration is not to achieve a more complete vision of nature, and so incompleteness of knowledge is a practical issue to be managed, not an insuperable barrier to integration. Whereas philosopher Sandra Mitchell’s presentation argued for the necessary incompleteness of any single scientific representation of the world, and a consequent need to revise our ideal of scientific enquiry, Bammer’s suggestion that the management of unknowns is central to integrative research would remain valid even on the traditional view that the aim of science is to produce a complete and consistent model of the natural world.

Bammer discussed two classes of tools for delivering integrative research: dialogic methods and modelling techniques. Dialogic methods were exemplified in a presentation by Michael O’Rourke and Stephen Crowley. These researchers have drawn on ideas from the philosophy of science to design facilitated conversations between members of research teams which draw out underlying presuppositions about the aims and standards of science which team members bring from their home disciplines. Bringing these into the open pre-empts misunderstandings and allows the management of disagreement.  

The use of models in translational integration ranges from exploring potential connections between different fields, as exemplified in the demonstration of systems diagrams by Robert Dyball, through the detailed causal models of complex systems seen in presentations by David James and John Crawford, to the deliberately abstractive mathematical models presented by Olaf Wolkenhauer. Much recent work in philosophy of science has focused on modelling as scientific practice, and models as scientific products. Whilst both these themes were well-represented in these presentations, another perspective on models present at the conference was their role as a tool for achieving translational integration.  The construction of a model to serve as the basis for action can be the activity through which diverse data, methods, results, and existing models from the contributing disciplines, are connected up and rendered commensurable.

What agendas for future research emerged from the meeting? The social scientists involved in research on integration all emphasised that it is early days in the process of developing a systematic approach to delivering integrative research. Those who work with research teams to facilitate integration are simultaneously engaged in research into the effectiveness of these interventions. However, given the ubiquity of interdisciplinary team science in today’s biology and biomedicine, the idea of learning from theory and experience, and embodying those lessons in a more systematic approach to integration is surely worth pursuing.