Book Review: The Disappearing Spoon, by Sam Kean

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Sometimes the right book finds you at the right time, and it shifts your perception just a little, just enough to make a difference. It reminds you of something important you haven’t thought of in a while, or it shows you a new way of looking at and interacting with the world. For me this winter, that book has been The Disappearing Spoon, by Sam Kean. I heard a very fuzzy description of the book at a holiday party, something about the periodic table and political history. As someone eternally interested in chemistry and its impact on society at large, I was intrigued.

The book accompanied me through a whirlwind holiday travel season, and as I read little kernels of story about each of the elements in the periodic table, I found myself unable to stop bringing them up in conversation. As my family pulled foil over Christmas leftovers and discussed my life as a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh: “Did you know that aluminum used to be more expensive than gold, and that Pittsburgh is where the guy who figured out how to isolate it cheaply set up shop?” As news of the flood in Brisbane hit American televisions: “Did you hear that Australian astronomers used chromium to provide evidence that the fine structure constant may change over time?” As friends argued about how pharmaceutical companies should respond to decline effect and toasted the New Year: “In 1932, Gerhard Domagk tested the first antibacterial drug, Prontosil, on his sick daughter in order to save her arm. If he had gotten caught doing it, he would have been arrested.”…

How to Philosophize About the Business and Bureaucracy of Science

In our post-Kuhnian times as philosophers and historians of science, it is important to remember that interests besides the holy, disinterested pursuit of Truth, Progress and Knowledge affect the development of scientific thought and practice. There is now a blossoming field of study devoted to understanding how scientific communities, personal and social values, and similar human concerns shape scientific developments. Recently, some people have taken another, quite pressing, (possibly?) nonscientific concern that affects the development of science: money.

This post is inspired by a group of people who are doing what might be called the Philosophy of the Business of Science: they are investigating the practicalities of funding and grant processing using philosophical tools for the purpose of trying to figure out how these aspects of the scientific endeavor shape changes in the landscape of science, and whether there are better systems that could, if implemented, improve this landscape. I had a chance to see a symposium on peer review in the sciences put on by a group of these people at the 2010 Philosophy of Science Association (PSA) biennial meeting in Montreal last weekend, and I want to share some of what I learned there with you. I also want to tell you a little bit about another pair of philosophers whose project is aimed more directly at funding structures in the sciences. But before I get into the gory details, let me orient you to the problems at hand.…