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“Boundary Work: Nanoscience Meets Philosophy at Material Surfaces” (10/23/14)

October 21, 2014

Julia Bursten

Abstract: Nanoscience is an inherently interdisciplinary field of study. Because it developed around a scale, rather than a set of laws or phenomena, it invites research programs from fields as diverse as materials science, biology, physics, chemistry, engineering, and design. For instance, gold nano-cubes are synthesized and characterized by chemists and physicists; modeled on computers by mechanical engineers; studied for their color-changing properties in stained glass by art historians, designers, and materials scientists; and manipulated for smarter drug delivery by chemists and biologists.
This scale-centric character of nanoscience means that knowledge in nanoscience is often grouped not along disciplinary lines, but rather around instrumentation techniques (as Mody (2011) has argued), around individual materials, as described above, or around particular applications. Consequently, the structure of knowledge in nanoscience is better understood as clusters of Galisonian “trading zones,” rather than a taxonomy of laws, theories, models, and heuristics. These trading zones permit contributions from diverse research perspectives—including those from history and philosophy of science.
I have spent over 2 years working with a nanoscience laboratory with the aim of understanding the structure of knowledge in nanoscience. Through this work I have become convinced that philosophers and historians of science can impact the development of new knowledge in nanoscience alongside practitioners in STEM fields. My talk shows how contributions from history and philosophy of science can provide new knowledge in nanoscience by describing how philosophical reflection on the concept “surface” led to reforms in experiment design in my lab.
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