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Jargonium Asks... Philip Ball

In this installment of Jargonium Asks, we are delighted to interview Philip Ball. He is a freelance science writer and author of many popular books on science, on topics such as the uses of colour, pattern formation in nature, quantum physics, natural and artificial intelligence, beauty in science and how life works. Besides writing books, Philip regularly contributes to Nature, where he worked for over 20 years, and various other publications as well as BBC radio. Here he answers our questions on history and philosophy of chemistry.

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

In the course of writing about science over several decades, I have become firmly convinced that it is crucial to provide some context about where the ideas came from and how they developed – to talk, in other words, about the history of science. Often science popularization uses such history in an anecdotal or decorative way, and to present it in a Whiggish way that separates the wheat – ideas deemed correct today – from the chaff – what was wrong and was rejected. I don’t feel such an approach does justice to the inventiveness, ingenuity and perceptiveness of many past scientists and natural philosophers: like today’s historians of science, I try to avoid such a presentist view. The same applies to the philosophy of science: there is a tendency among some scientists to disparage it as useless to scientists themselves (as if this were ever an obligation!), but I believe that science now and previously throws up philosophical questions that merit being taken seriously.

Issues like these cropped up first in a big way in my writing in my 2006 biography of Paracelsus, The Devil’s Doctor. There are things about that book that I’d change today, but it certainly compelled me to delve deeply into the history of chemistry!


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

It always delights me that some of the most fundamental questions in chemistry – such as “What is an element? A molecule? A chemical bond?” – still don’t have answers that everyone agrees on. Those debates reflect, I feel, the rather pragmatic nature of the foundations of chemistry: chemists need concepts that are useful to them and which help them systematically organize their discipline, even if such concepts resist rigorous definition. That’s even more true, of course, in biology, which takes the messiness of the molecular sciences to a new level! I feel that the discussions and even arguments that happen around those foundational questions shed light on how chemists think: they need rules of thumb which they can relate to laboratory practice.

As for the history of chemistry, there is no period that lacks fascinating aspects. I am a staunch defender of phlogiston – not, of course, as a real substance, but as one of those ideas that, by filling an explanatory void, allowed science to continue to make progress even in the absence of knowledge solidly backed up by experiment. It is not, as some have suggested, merely a wrong idea that retarded the advance of chemical science. I am also fascinated by the interactions of organic chemistry, structural theory, and industry during the developments in synthetic dyes in the late nineteenth century, an issue that arose in my book on the genesis of colour in art, Bright Earth.


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

I’ve touched on that above. I have long felt that many chemists have a rather different outlook on science from that of physicists (and both differ from biologists), so that the traditional dominance of physics as the model for the philosophy of science distorts our notion of what science is and what it does. Not least, chemistry shows that the philosophy of science is not just concerned with questions of ontology, reductionism, and the grand questions of existence, but must also acknowledge the practical aspects of the endeavour: it is also about what we can make, and why.

History can also reveal the path-dependence of scientific ideas. The common view is, of course, that science is self-correcting and thereby works its way slowly towards ideas that are more true, in the sense that they better capture the way nature works. There’s surely some truth in that, but history shows that there is no inevitability in the way theories and ideas are framed, that the questions science asks and the answers it gives are often deeply entrained with the culture of the times, and that flawed ideas can remain entrenched for centuries. That’s a perspective which ought to instil a bit of humility in science today.


4. What are you currently working on?

You’ve asked at a good time! I have previously published a couple of highly illustrated books in collaboration with the publisher Quarto, who do a fantastic job on such things, that are very relevant in this context: an illustrated history of the discovery of the elements, and an illustrated history of experimental science. They asked if I’d like to do another, and came up with a suggestion that I couldn’t resist: An illustrated history of alchemy. So that is one of my current projects, and it has (as I’d hoped) given me the opportunity and motivation to return to this subject (after the Paracelsus book) and dig more deeply into it.

In a sense my latest published book, How Life Works, is still work in progress – well, how could it not be, with a title like that! The book argues that advances in our understanding of biology – particularly at the molecular and cellular levels – in recent decades suggest that it is time to revise the narratives we tell about life. I found that my own preconceptions about the molecular basis of life were challenged as I prepared the book, and I am still seeing regularly new papers that cast some novel light on aspects of this question. So I continue to find myself writing about these issues: the book itself is surely more of a first than a last word.


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

The philosophy of chemistry deserves more attention quite generally! I suspect that many chemists don’t even really recognize it as a field of inquiry. One topic that particularly interests me here is, as I hinted above, the relationship between the way chemists think about developing higher-order structure and function and the way it happens in the natural world. It would be nice too if the philosophy of chemistry could help us come to some consensus about the best way to arrange the periodic table – but I’m not holding my breath about that!

The history of chemistry seems to me to be a pretty robust field these days, and has done a great job (if perhaps still under-recognized) of challenging outdated views about the roles of alchemy. But there is still a lack of knowledge and scholarship about the early history of chemistry outside the western tradition, for example in China and India. I’d be keen to know more about that. I am also rather enjoying the fact that some of the areas of chemistry in which I was involved (as a Nature editor) in the 1980s and 90s, such as supramolecular chemistry, carbon nanotechnology, and the early days of “chemical biology” and synthetic biology, are now old enough that they are coming within the purview of historians. I suppose that’s one benefit of having been around for a long time now!


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

I have heard only good things about Catherine Jackson’s book Molecular World: Making Modern Chemistry, and so I’m really looking forward to being able to get stuck into my copy. Matthew Cobb’s forthcoming biography of Francis Crick is sure to be amazing too. As for things I have actually read… Alison Bashford’s joint biography of the Huxleys (especially T. H. and Julian), An Intimate History of Evolution, is packed with insight and intrigue. And I’m seeing interesting scientific papers all the time. To take just one: “In-cell dynamics: the next focus of all-atom simulations” by Taras Pogorelov and colleagues (J. Phys. Chem. B 10.1021/acs.jpcb.3c05166) raised a host of questions for me about the large-scale molecular dynamics of the cell.


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