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Thread: Are chemists pragmatists?

  1. #1 Are chemists pragmatists? 
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    I wondered where to put this - should it be on the Philosophy board?? - anyway, I decided to put it here.

    I am not a chemist, but I have worked with a number of people who are. Something that has struck me about many chemists is their commendably pragmatic attitude. An example from Chemistry itself is the notion of activity and activity coefficients with regard to ionic solutions. No one has come up with a mathematically rigorous description of ionic solutions (Debye-Huckel doesn't really fit the bill), but chemists still have to cope with their properties - so they go along with the notion of an "activity", or effective concentration to sort out real problems.

    Whereas Physics entertains such notions as the holographic principle and string theory, there is nothing comparable to this degree of speculative meandering in chemistry. On the whole, chemists seem to get on with job of applying their knowledge and understanding to real, everyday problems - such as new pharmaceutical products or new materials. Of course, a lot of physicists are similarly employed, but the subject of Physics itself has a non-pragmatic, intellectual component which appears to be absent from Chemistry. Chemistry has no philosophical undertones, but they abound in Physics - despite the tendency of some physicists to condemn anything that looks a bit "wordy" or philosophical.

    Does anyone have any views on this?


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    Bullshit Intolerant PhDemon's Avatar
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    I'd say chemists have to be fairly pragmatic, after all exact QM solutions to most things chemists are interested in are not feasible, there will always be some level of approximation involved. As for activity coefficients (I deal with them every day) and we are not so pragmatic as to not to try and model them effectively. There has been a lot of work on this by some of our collaborators, see for example: Published Papers and citation


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  4. #3  
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    Quote Originally Posted by PhDemon View Post
    I'd say chemists have to be fairly pragmatic, after all exact QM solutions to most things chemists are interested in are not feasible, there will always be some level of approximation involved. As for activity coefficients (I deal with them every day) and we are not so pragmatic as to not to try and model them effectively. There has been a lot of work on this by some of our collaborators, see for example: Published Papers and citation
    Very much agree. The problems of real chemical elements and their compounds do not allow the luxury of idealised concepts, for the most part. Chemists, like physicists, like to simplify to ideal conditions when they can, but are usually forced to make messy compromises with chemical reality.

    But chemistry does have its philosophical undertones, even if they are just pale shadows of those encountered in physics. We use models that conflict, for example the "arrow pushing" of organic chemistry, which has no real counterpart in the theories of reaction kinetics. Chemists are willing to use models that work for the purpose at hand, even though their theoretical foundation may be acknowledged to be flaky. This obviously has philosophical implications, in that one must use such models with a degree of reservation as to their ultimate reality.
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  5. #4  
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    I believe that Chemistry does indeed have some aspects which could not be described as pragmatic, but which are fascinating. An example is the Miller/Urey experiment carried on in the 1950s. However, it is something which doesn't receive much publicity, and it is possible than most people haven't heard of it.
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