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The Curious Wavefunction

The Curious Wavefunction

Musings on chemistry and the history and philosophy of science

Chemistry and Biology: Kuhnian or Galisonian?

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Peter Galison who has emphasized the dominance of experimental techniques in engineering scientific revolutions (Image: BNL).

Freeman Dyson has a perspective in this week's Science magazine in which he provides a summary of a theme he has explored in his book "The Sun, the Genome and the Internet". Dyson's central thesis is that scientific revolutions are driven as much or even more by tools than by ideas. This view runs somewhat contrary to the generally accepted belief regarding the dominance of Kuhnian revolutions - described famously by Thomas Kuhn in his seminal book "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" - which are engineered by ideas and shifting paradigms. In contrast, in reference to Harvard university historian of science Peter Galison and his book "Image and Logic", Dyson emphasizes the importance of Galisonian revolutions which are driven mainly by experimental tools.

As a chemist I find myself in almost complete agreement with the idea of tool-driven Galisonian revolutions. Chemistry as a discipline rose from the ashes of alchemy, a thoroughly experimental activity. Since then there have been four revolutions in chemistry that can be called Kuhnian. One was the attempt by Lavoisier, Priestley and others at the turn of the 17th century to systematize elements, compounds and mixtures to separate chemistry from the shackles of alchemical mystique. The second was the synthesis of urea by Friedrich Wohler in 1828; this was a paradigm shift in the true sense of the term since it placed substances from living organisms into the same realm as those from non-living organisms. The third revolution was the conception of the periodic table by Mendeleev, although this was more of a classification akin to the classification of elementary particles by Murray Gell-Mann and others during the 1960s. A minor revolution accompanying Mendeleev's invention that was paramount for organic chemistry was the development of the structural theory by von Leibig, Kekule and others which led the way to structure determination of molecules. The fourth revolution was the application of quantum mechanics to chemistry and the elucidation of the chemical bond by Pauling, Slater, Mulliken and others. All these advances blazed new trails, but none were as instrumental or overarching as the corresponding revolutions in physics by Newton (mechanics), Carnot, Clausius and others (thermodynamics), Maxwell and Faraday (electromagnetism), Einstein (relativity) and Einstein, Planck and others (quantum mechanics).

Why does chemistry seem more Galisonian and physics seem more Kuhnian? One point that Dyson does not allude to but which I think is cogent concerns the complexity of the science. Physics can be very hard, but chemistry is more complex in that it deals with multilayered, emergent systems that cannot yield themselves to reductionist, first principles approaches. This kind of complexity is also apparent in the branches of physics typically subsumed under the title of "many-body interactions". Many-body interactions range from the behavior of particles in a superconductor to the behavior of stars condensing into galaxies under the influence of their mutual gravitational interaction. There are of course highly developed theoretical frameworks to describe both kinds of interactions, but they involve several approximations and simplifications, resulting in models rather than theories. My contention is that the explanation of more complex systems, being less amenable to theorizing, are driven by Galisonian revolutions rather than Kuhnian.

Chemistry is a good case in point. Linus Pauling's chemical theory arose from the quantum mechanical treatment of molecules, and more specifically the theory of the simplest molecule, the hydrogen molecular ion which consists of one electron interacting with two nuclei. The parent atom, hydrogen, is the starting point for the discipline of quantum chemistry. Open any quantum chemistry textbook and what follows from this simple system is a series of approximations that allow one to apply quantum mechanics to complex molecules. Today quantum chemistry and more generally theoretical chemistry are highly refined techniques that allow one to explain and often predict the behavior of molecules with hundreds of atoms.

And yet if you look at the insights gained into molecular structure and bonding over the past century, they have come from a handful of key experimental approaches. Foremost among these are x-ray diffraction, which Dyson also mentions, and Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) spectroscopy, also the basis of MRI. It is hard to overstate the impact that these techniques have had on the determination of the structure of literally millions of molecules ranging across an astonishing range of diversity, from table salt to the ribosome. X-ray diffraction and NMR have provided us not only with the locations of the atoms in a molecule, but also with invaluable insights into the bonding and energetic features of the arrangements. Along with other key spectroscopic methods like infrared spectroscopy, neutron diffraction and fluorescence spectroscopy, x-rays and magnetic resonance have not just revolutionized the practice of chemical science but have also led to the most complete understanding we have yet of chemical bonding. Contrast this wealth of data with similar attempts using purely theoretical techniques which can also be used in principle to predict the structures, properties and functions of molecules. Progress in this area has been remarkable and promising, but it's still orders of magnitude harder to predict, say, the most stable configuration of a simple molecule in a crystal than to actually crystallize the chemical even by trial and error. From materials for solar cells to those for organ transplants, experimental structure determination in chemistry has fast outpaced theoretical prediction.

What about biology? The Galisonian approach in the form of x-ray diffraction and NMR has been spectacularly successful in the application of chemistry to biological systems that culminated in the advent of molecular biology in the twentieth century. Starting with Watson and Crick's solution of the structure of DNA, x-ray diffraction basically helped formulate the theory of nucleic acid and protein structure. Particularly noteworthy is the Sanger method of gene sequencing - an essentially chemical technique - which has had a profound and truly revolutionary impact on genetics and medicine that we are only beginning to appreciate. Yet we are still far from a theory of protein structure in the form of protein folding; that Kuhnian revolution is yet to come. The dominance of Galisonian approaches to biochemistry raise the question about the validity of Kuhnian thinking in the biological sciences. This is an especially relevant question because the last Kuhnian revolution in biology - a synthesis of known facts leading to a general explanatory theory that could encapsulate all of biology - was engineered by Charles Darwin more than 150 years ago. Since then nothing comparable has happened in biological science; as indicated earlier, the theoretical understanding of the genetic code and the central dogma came from experiment rather than the very general synthesis in terms of replicators, variation and fitness that Darwin put together for living organisms. Interestingly, in his later years (and only a year before the discovery of the structure of DNA) the great mathematician John von Neumann put forward a Darwin-like, general theoretical framework that explained how replication and metabolism could be coupled to each other, but this was largely neglected and certainly did not come to the attention of practicing chemists and biologists.

Dyson's essay and the history of science does not necessarily assert that the view of science in terms of Kuhnian revolutions is misguided and that in terms of Galisonian revolutions is justified. It's rather that complex systems are often more prone to Galisonian advances because the theoretical explanations are simply too complicated. Another viewpoint driven home by Dyson is that Kuhnian and Galisonian approaches alternate and build on each other. It is very likely that after a few Galisonian spells a field becomes ripe for a Kuhnian consolidation.

Biology is going to be especially interesting in this regard. The most exciting areas in current biology are considered to be neuroscience, systems biology and genomics. These fields have been built up from an enormous number of experimentally determined facts but they are in search of general theories. However, it is very likely that a general theoretical understanding of the cell or the brain will come from very different approaches from the reductionist approaches that were so astonishingly successful in the last two hundred years. A Kuhnian revolution to understand biology could likely borrow from its most illustrious practitioner - Charles Darwin. One of the signature features of Darwin's theory is that it seeks to provide a unified understanding that transcends multiple levels of biological organization, from individual to society. Our twenty-first view of biology adds two pieces, genes and culture, to opposite ends of the ladder. It is time to integrate these pieces - obtained by hard, creative Galisonian science - into the Kuhnian edifice of biology.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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