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Jargonium Asks... Elena Ghibaudi

For this installment of Jargonium Asks, it is our pleasure to interview Elena Ghibaudi from the University of Torino. She is a chemist, a chemistry teacher and a philosopher of chemistry, working on foundational concepts of chemistry and the way chemical knowledge develops.

A picture of Elena Ghibaudi

1. How did you get into philosophy and history of chemistry?

My curiosity about philosophy of science goes back to my high school days, but it was much later that I became professionally interested in the philosophy of chemistry. The inspiration came to me from teaching: as I started teaching, I soon realized that behind what I was teaching, and what was given by everyone as established knowledge, there were a lot of open questions. This also led me to look with different eyes at the experimental research activity I was then carrying out. In addition, meeting two mentors like Luigi Cerruti and Ezio Roletto, who worked in the chemistry department, here in Turin, and dealt respectively with the history of chemistry and the application of the historical-epistemological approach to the teaching of chemistry, definitely captured me. However, I must emphasize that I was trained as a chemist and did not benefit from a systematic study of philosophy. For me, trying to do philosophy of chemistry means first and foremost seeking answers to the speculative questions that my work as a chemist poses.

2. What is your favourite question in the history and/or philosophy of chemistry?

I am fascinated by the relationship that exists between reality (understood on the ontological level) and the descriptions we give (or attempt to give) of it. The space of epistemology is right there in the middle, I believe. So, for chemists - who resort to microscopic entities and processes to interpret the transformations and behaviour of substances - questions about what difference there is between saying, "This molecule exists" and saying "This tree exists" become unavoidable. Similarly, it becomes natural to ask whether an element is something material or abstract, a material entity or a category. I am passionate about the debate about natural kinds, just as I am interested in the dialectic between the physical realm and its descriptive/interpretive models, which is so central to science, and also so important to chemistry teaching.

3. What is the value of philosophy and/or history of chemistry?

It is a huge value, but somewhat underestimated by chemists themselves. In my opinion, it is first and foremost a cultural value: the chemical discipline - like any scientific discipline - is a structured system of thought about material reality, a way of thinking about and interpreting the physical world. So, chemistry fits fully into scientific culture and enriches it with its content. Unfortunately, this awareness seems not to be full ingrained in the chemical community. Many chemists give the impression of perceiving chemistry only as a form of technical knowledge; this attitude is all the more present in public opinion, which hardly thinks of chemistry as a form of culture. This has important consequences, both in the relations between chemistry and other disciplines and in the construction of chemistry's own identity. In her interview, Olimpia Lombardi notes that “practicing chemists tend to stay further away from philosophy than scientists from other disciplines (physicists, biologists, etc.)”. I fully agree with Olympia and add: too many chemists do not feel it necessary to be speculative about their own discipline, understood as a body of concepts, conceptual relationships, cognitive practices, etc. The risk is to lose sight of the intimate value of what we chemists do and to live a relationship of permanent subordination to physics, according to a typically reductionist view of science.

Knowledge of disciplinary history (another weak point of too many chemists) is essential to understand and make other people understand the value of the knowledge developed by chemists and its distinctiveness from other knowledge (e.g., physics or biology). Finally, the philosophy of chemistry, understood as reflection on the conceptual tools that chemistry develops and uses, is fundamental to ensuring the implementation of good teaching. I often like reminding that the teaching space is where each discipline preserves its own knowledge, transmits it and perpetuates itself. Therefore, we chemists should take good care of this space!

4. What are you currently working on?

Recently, I have been working on the notion of mole and the changes undergone by its definition (and by the quantity “amount of substance”). I tried to make an analysis of the 1971 and 2019 definitions of mole from an epistemological perspective. More generally, I am interested in analyzing some of the foundational concepts of chemistry (substance, element, orbital, chemical bond, etc.) and exploring their evolution over time and the unresolved issues in them. I think this is useful for those who teach chemistry, and I agree with Sibel Erduran when she says that teacher education needs to be informed by and about philosophy of chemistry. But this is also beneficial to experimental researchers who often use these concepts taking them for granted. The basic idea is the same I expressed earlier: epistemological reflection on chemical knowledge is not an end in itself, but is deeply useful to anyone who practices and frequents chemistry.

5. How do you envision the future of the field? What are the areas/topics that you believe deserve more attention?

I choose two very general themes that I think are relevant to chemistry: the complexity paradigm and the relationship of chemistry to other scientific disciplines.

With regard to the latter issue, I’ve noticed that chemistry is often presented by chemists themselves as 'the central science', indicating that its view of the physical realm and the exploratory tools (theoretical and practical) that chemistry makes available to scientific inquiry are indispensable to many disciplinary research fields, from pharmacology to food science, from materials engineering to molecular biology, from geology to environmental science, etc. Now, from my viewpoint, this way of presenting chemistry is a double-edged sword: while it highlights the ubiquitous character of chemistry, it also risks conveying the image of a pure service science, thus obscuring its peculiarities. I believe this danger can be avoided only by promoting reflection on the disciplinary identity of chemistry.

One reading that may help to enhance the peculiarities of chemistry is to think of it as a complex science: Joachim Schummer wrote that chemistry is a science of 'peculiar relations'. I am persuaded that chemistry lends itself to embodying the complexity paradigm especially well, because of its conceptual structure (so much different from that of physics) and its inherent nature of science of relations.

6. A recently published paper or book that you would recommend reading?

I gladly recommend reading a recently appeared book written by Marina Banchetti Robino and Giovanni Villani: From the Atom to Living Systems, A Chemical and Philosophical Journey Into Modern and Contemporary Science, by Oxford University Press. This is a historical and epistemological journey into chemistry. It takes up some of the issues I mentioned just above and offers an interesting view of chemistry as a systemic and complex science.

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