Is chemistry just physics? | Interview with Dr. Eric Scerri

We met with Dr. Eric Scerri to discuss whether chemistry is different from physics, who really developed the periodic table, the need for students to follow their passions, and much more. Enjoy!

Is chemistry just physics? | Interview with Dr. Eric Scerri
The question of whether chemistry is fundamentally nothing but physics.” – Dr. Eric Scerri

Dr. Eric Scerri talks with student Karina Macosko about the path he took to become a historian and philosopher of chemistry. He discusses what makes this rather new field different, as well as what the future may hold for the discipline. Dr. Scerri has recently become interested in the “reduction question” which attempts to answer whether chemistry is fundamentally different from physics. His early career focused on the history and emergence of the periodic table, which despite being credited to Dmitri Mendeleev, was actually developed by many scholars building off one another. Scerri also advises students searching for a future career to follow their passion rather than following ulterior motives.

Want to hear more from Dr. Scerri? Check out his latest book, What Is a Chemical Element?.

See Dr. Scerri’s Academic Influence profile

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Karina’s Interview with Chemist, Dr. Eric Scerri

Interview Transcript

(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)

0:00:12.7Influences

Karina Macosko: Hi, my name is Karina Macosko from AcademicInfluence.com, and I’m here with Professor Scerri. And Professor Scerri, we just wanna know: How did you get into your field, and what influenced you to go into the career you went into?

Eric Scerri: Okay, well, it’s sort of a complicated story. First of all, let me explain my field. I work in the history and philosophy of chemistry, which is a relatively new discipline. Now, there’s always been a history of chemistry, but the philosophy of chemistry, in particular, is a new development. And okay, so to... My own path into this discipline is the following: I studied Chemistry at high school. I was also always interested in physics. I did an undergraduate degree at the University of London, which initially, I was wanting to do Chemistry and Physics joint, a joint degree, as they called them in England, but in the end, it turned out to be Chemistry. I was told that my grades in Physics were not good enough to do physics. But I always retained that interest in the more physics-y side of chemistry, the more theoretical, the more sort of fundamental aspects.

I then began a PhD at the University of Cambridge on the Theoretical Chemistry, and I found that was a little too mathematical, it didn’t suit me. I left that. It was suggested by some people that I go into the Philosophy of Science Department. I had a couple of interviews there. And funnily enough, they said to me... I gave them an essay I had written, and I always remember the response from them. They said, "This is either genius or complete nonsense. And one way or the other, we can’t help you." So I went away again. And then I began another PhD or what was going to be a PhD in Physical Chemistry, highly experimental area of physical chemistry, and that didn’t suit me, so it’s taken me a long time.

Finally, I did a PhD. It took me six years. I was teaching part-time and doing the PhD in the History and Philosophy of Science. And now, I felt that I had finally arrived at what really interested me. In other words, I’m not someone who does hands-on science. I don’t make molecules, I don’t do experiments. I am more on the reflective side of the subject, trying to understand the big picture, trying to understand what it means, is one of the aspects of the philosophy of science.

0:02:58.0The reduction question

Karina: Wow, that is so interesting! And we’ve interviewed historians on here and chemists, so can you tell us what makes you similar to a historian or a chemist, and what makes you different?

Eric: Well, I look at the history of chemistry, obviously. I mean I’ve written books about the development of the periodic table, the discovery of elements. But my domain of interest, if you like, is more restricted than a general historian.

What makes me different from a more traditional chemist is as I just mentioned, that I don’t actually make compounds and molecules. I don’t conduct experiments. I try and examine some ideas. For instance, one of the ideas I’ve been interested in is what’s called the reduction question, the question of whether chemistry is fundamentally nothing but physics. The way we explain the periodic table, for example, is to say that it all depends on electron shells and orbitals. And it’s interesting to know or to look into whether that’s, in fact, the case, so the extents to which physics explains chemistry has been my chief interest for some years now.

Karina: Wow! So is chemistry just physics, or all the chemists that we’ve talked to just been...

Eric: Well, I knew you were gonna ask me that question next. [chuckle]

Karina: Yeah. [chuckle]

Eric: The answer I’d like to give is yes and no. I mean fundamentally, it is. Nobody is claiming that chemistry is somehow floating in a disconnected fashion from physics. But at the same time, sometimes, the claims that are made by physicists, especially, that they have explained everything in chemistry, are somewhat incorrect. And this has relevance to the way we teach Chemistry as well because more and more chemistry is taught as if it was nothing but physics. And we tend to start with orbitals and electron shells and things like that, in the hope that that will eventually explain all of chemistry. The more traditional route has always been to start with chemistry, and then to bring in the theories, and there’s an ongoing debate about that. And some of the work that I and other philosophers of chemistry are doing seek to inform that question.

Karina: Interesting. So basically, the chemists try to claim everything, and the physicists try to claim everything, but...

Eric: Not surprisingly, yes, yes, yeah.

0:05:27.8Within the history of chemistry

Karina: Yeah. [chuckle] Yeah. So could you give us just a brief history lesson, I guess, of chemistry? Or what is it that you mainly study within the history of chemistry?

Eric: Well, as I’ve said, I studied the periodic table. It has been my main area of interest. I have a book that was published in 2007 called The Periodic Table: Its Story and Its Significance, meaning its history and philosophy. Well, in the time of Lavoisier, a great French chemist, was the first to perhaps list the elements. There were only about 30 elements in his time.

Over the years, more and more elements were discovered, to the point where it became necessary to develop a classification system. About, not only about, but almost exactly 150 years ago, in 1869, Mendeleev, a famous Russian chemist, put forward what is now considered to be the definitive periodic table.

I'm a great believer in multiple discovery, that quite often, even though we attribute a discovery to one individual scientist, it's really due to numerous scientists who have all struggled with the idea, each one providing a small piece of the puzzle.” – Dr. Eric Scerri

Now, of course, there have been a lot of other pre-discoveries, anticipations and hints towards that, but he is generally credited as the discoverer. In fact, it’s been interesting to look at the rival claims. I’m a great believer in multiple discovery, that quite often, even though we attribute a discovery to one individual scientist, it’s really due to numerous scientists who have all struggled with the idea, each one providing a small piece of the puzzle.

When the periodic table was first discovered, as I say, officially, in 1869 by Mendeleev, it was all based on chemical properties. He noticed that elements like, say lithium, sodium, potassium, rubidium all behaved in a similar way. They are soft metals that react vigorously with water. There was no underlying explanation for why that should be. That had to wait until physics came along with the Theory of Quantum Mechanics, and its theory that the electrons are in shells. And so the modern explanation is that the reason why those elements are similar, and similarly for other groups in the periodic table, because they have analogous electron configurations. They have the same number of outer shell electrons. So that provides a fundamental microscopic explanation, supposedly, and it does. As I said before, I’m not denying that, fundamentally, there is an explanation from physics. So that’s a quick history of the periodic table and its development. We now understand it through physics.

0:08:21.0A career in philosophy of chemistry

Karina: Wow! Well, thank you for that. And you mentioned that this field, historian of chemistry, is a fairly new field. So if somebody my age were to go into this field, what kind of jobs or what kind of career might they have?

Eric: Well, they would... By the way, I said the philosophy of chemistry is the really new aspect.

Karina: Oh, yes.

Eric: But well, that person would work in perhaps in a philosophy department, most likely a history and philosophy of science sub-department there. Most, these days, most philosophy departments will have one or two faculty members who are philosophers of science. And such a person would maybe specialise in the philosophy of chemistry or the philosophy of chemistry and physics, given that they’re such closely related field.

The philosophy of chemistry started in the mid-1990s, and it developed quite spontaneously. I published a paper in a journal and was invited to a conference, and discovered that there were scholars in different parts of the world, we didn’t even know each other at that time, who were working in this field. So we got together, we founded a society. There are now two international journals. I edit one of them, it’s called the Foundations of Chemistry.

Karina: Wow!

Eric: And we have international conferences every year. So it really is a, still, relatively new field, but that makes it quite exciting because it bridges different disciplines.

0:09:55.8Some advice

Karina: Wow, that is fascinating! And something that I like to ask people who I interview on here is: If you could go back and do it all again, do high school again, do college again, is there anything that you would have changed? Or is there any advice that you would like to give to people who are just starting out in college?

I think it's essential to do something that you're really, really interested in because that's the thing that will keep you going.” – Dr. Eric Scerri

Eric: I would say follow your passion. I would say don’t follow the money, for example. Don’t necessarily go for position. It’s essential. This takes up so much hard work and so on, that it’s essential to do something that you’re really interested in, and not because you think there might be a particular career at the end of it. Of course, well, maybe we’re talking about an academic career, but within that framework, I think it’s essential to do something that you’re really, really interested in because that’s the thing that will keep you going. And if you don’t have a passion for a field, don’t do it. Don’t do it because it’s what your parents are pushing you into, or because you think it might sound good compared to something else. So my overall advice is follow your passion, follow your genuine interests.

0:11:11.8Sign off

Karina: Wow! Well, thank you so much for that fantastic advice. And thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. It was really interesting hearing about your career and your field, so thank you so much.

Eric: You are quite welcome. Nice to meet you.