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

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