Archive for the ‘Nanoscience’ Category


“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.

Day-O-WIPs Beta

June 17, 2013

The second installment of the “Day-O-WIPs” series:

“Toward a Philosophy of Synthetic Science” Julia Bursten

“Can Genes be Darwinian Individuals?” Haixin Dang

“Group Theory or No Group Theory: Understanding Atomic Spectra” Joshua Hunt

“Dynamical Models: A Type of Mathematical Explanation in Neuroscience and Medicine” Lauren Ross

“The Wax & the Mechanical Mind: Reexamining Hobbes’s Objections to Descartes’ Meditations” Marcus Adams


Toward a Philosophy of Synthetic Science: Lessons from Nanosynthesis

May 30, 2013

Julia Bursten

Philosophers of science have spilled much ink discussing how scientific theories and models work. A vast majority of the theories and models they have studied have come from parts of science whose theories only describe the natural world, such as general relativity, quantum field theories, or population genetics. Consequently, philosophers of science have often overlooked the structure and function of theories and models in “synthetic” sciences such as chemistry, materials science, and engineering, where part of scientific practice is making something new, over and above describing what is already out there. Getting clearer on how models and theories work in synthetic sciences will benefit practitioners of those sciences as they develop new theories and models, as well as illuminating recent debates in philosophy of science about the structure and function of scientific theories and models.


Surface Tensions: Challenges to Philosophy of Science from Nanoscience

January 31, 2013

Julia Bursten

Abstract: A traditional view of the structure of scientific theories, on which philosophers of science have based their accounts of explanation, modeling, and inter-theory relations, holds that scientific theories are composed of universal natural laws coupled with initial and boundary conditions. In this picture, universal laws play the most significant role in scientific reasoning. Initial and boundary conditions are rarely differentiated and their role in reasoning is largely overlooked. In this talk, I use the problem of modeling surfaces in nanoscience to show why this dismissal is deeply problematic both for philosophers of science and for scientists themselves.

In macroscopic-scale modeling, surfaces are treated as boundaries in the mathematical sense-that is, as infinitesimally thin borders of a system that confine its interior. As such, surface structure and behavior is usually modeled in an idealized manner that ignores most of the physics and chemistry occurring there. At the nanoscale, however, the structure and behavior of these surfaces significantly constrains the structure and behavior of the interior in more complex ways. Three important conclusions emerge:

1. The very concept surface changes as a function of scale, and other central concepts in nanoscience also behave in this scale-dependent manner.
2. The traditional view of theory described above does not adequately capture the nature of nanomaterials modeling, which requires attention to multiple models constructed at different characteristic scales. These component models do not comport well with a single set of universal laws, as the standard view suggests. Instead, boundary behaviors become crucial and models are designed to capture these behaviors.
3. The projects of nanomaterials modeling and synthesis dictate that divisions between boundaries and interiors must be continually adjusted. Overlooking this problem has led to failures of experimental design and interpretation of data.