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Thinking Small: Scientific Reasoning at the Nanoscale

Philosophy Lecture by Julia Bursten, University of Kentucky
A central aim of philosophy of science is to characterize scientific reasoning, particularly how scientific reasoning leads to scientific knowledge. One method for accomplishing this task is to investigate historical and contemporary scientific practices in order to develop case studies of scientific reasoning “in action.” In recent years, this has become one of the predominant approaches to philosophy of science, often called “philosophy of science in practice” or “philosophy of scientific practice” (PSP).

PSP has shown that there is no universal scientific method and no single logical structure of scientific theories. Instead, the selection of which science(s) will provide the basis of one’s case studies significantly impacts the resulting portrait of knowledge. For example, early in the history of philosophy of science, researchers’ attention to physics shaped a view of scientific knowledge centered on universal, true laws of nature.
My research is a PSP investigation of scientific reasoning that takes nanoscience as the starting point. Nanoscience studies the behavior of materials at the nanoscale, a region on the borderland between molecules and materials where matter is not well-described by either quantum mechanics or classical physics alone. Nanomaterials exhibit novel, scale-dependent material behaviors, and nanoscientists are constantly challenged to adapt concepts, models, and theories from across wide swathes of physics and chemistry to try to predict and explain these behaviors. Further, because one of the central projects of nanoscience is the fabrication of new types of materials, this tangle of physics and chemistry is used not only to predict and explain nanomaterials, but also to synthesize new materials, and new material kinds.

By painting a portrait of scientific knowledge from the palette of nanoscience, my research reveals new insights about scientific epistemology. I highlight three central results: (1) Scale plays an essential role in constraining the development of scientific concepts, classification schemes, and modeling practices. (2) Rather than approaching questions of inter-theory relations by asking which one is more fundamental, philosophers should instead attend to how theories and models stitch together. And (3) Synthesis is a central activity of nanoscience, and carrying out this activity generates distinct epistemic goals from explanation, prediction, and description.

Event Contact: collin.rice@colostate.edu


5:00 pm - 6:30 pm


Eddy 200
Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO, 80523

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