Between Material Substances and Abstract Ideas: Chemists’ Objects of Inquiry, 18th–21st Centuries

Litmus paper

Courtesy of CHF Collections.

Date: October 4, 2012 - October 6, 2012
Time: Varies

315 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106

Event Type: Open to the Public
Fee: Free
RSVP Online: Registration Required

This conference is concerned with material things and processes in the history of chemistry: both things in nature and technological materials. Arguably, chemistry is the material science par excellence, due to its long-standing emphasis on the central importance of stuff in all its variability. Furthermore, chemistry shares with physics and biology a tradition of theory building, generalizing the phenomena being studied. Historians, philosophers, and chemists alike have observed a peculiar ambiguity, or imprecision, of chemical conceptions and theory building. On the one hand, chemists feel the need for a unifying approach. On the other hand, they are fascinated by the enormous variety of phenomena, thrilled by the uniqueness of each substance, and impressed by the peculiarity of every reaction. How did they do justice to both aspects of scientific reasoning?

The conference will address this major challenge confronting the chemists’ approach at an intermediate level between abstract theory and the matériel of experiment. Middle-range theories, analogies, models, mental images, formulae, orderings of reactivities, and groupings of substances are among the chemists’ objects of inquiry to be covered. It is the aim of this conference to track down the history of such scientific concepts and objects and to contribute to the understanding of their working modes. How do they influence theory building at its various levels? Can we discern different types of modeling applied? What is the role of the material productivity of chemistry, and how was synthesis affected by using models as blueprints?  These are the questions that such a focus promises to answer.

  About the Conference

This conference is presented by Ursula Klein, Max-Planck-Institute for History of Science, Berlin, Germany, and Carsten Reinhardt, Institute for Science and Technology Studies, University of Bielefeld, in partnership with CHF.

For more information about this event, please contact Carin Berkowitz, associate director, Beckman Center for the History of Chemistry, at 215.873.8289 or

  Conference Schedule

Thursday, October 04, 2012

9:00 a.m.–8:00 p.m.

View full conference schedule here.

Friday, October 05, 2012

9:00 a.m.–8:00 p.m.

View full conference schedule here.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

9:00 a.m.–1:00 p.m.

View full conference schedule here.

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