Scerri, Eric R. 1953-

views updated

Scerri, Eric R. 1953-

PERSONAL:

Born August 30, 1953, in Malta; immigrated to United States, 1995; son of Edward and Ines Scerri. Education: University of London, B.Sc., 1974, Ph.D., 1992; Southampton University, M.Phil., 1979.

ADDRESSES:

Office—Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry, 607 Charles E. Young Dr. E, UCLA, Los Angeles, CA 90095-1569. E-mail—[email protected]

CAREER:

Mander, Portman, Woodward, London, England, chemistry tutor, 1980-85; Abbey Tutorial College, London, senior tutor, 1985-91; Richmond College, London, professor, 1991-93; London School of Economics, postdoctoral fellow, 1993-95; California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, postdoctoral fellow, 1995-97; Bradley University, Peoria, IL, assistant professor, 1997-98; Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN, visiting professor, 1998-99; University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), continuing lecturer in chemistry.

MEMBER:

International Society for the Philosophy of Chemistry, American Chemical Society, Royal Society of Chemistry, Philosophy of Science Association.

AWARDS, HONORS:

Outstanding Academic Book for 2007 citation, from Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries; McCoy Newby Faculty Award for outstanding contribution to the science of chemistry, UCLA, 2007.

WRITINGS:

(Editor, with D. Baird and L. McIntyre) Philosophy of Chemistry: Synthesis of a New Discipline, Springer (Dordrecht, Netherlands), 2006.

The Periodic Table: Its Story and Its Significance, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 2007.

Collected Papers on Philosophy of Chemistry, Imperial College Press (London, England), 2008.

Founder and editor-in-chief, Foundations of Chemistry, 1998. Also contributor of approximately eighty articles to professional journals, including Philosophy of Science, British Journal of the Philosophy of Science, Journal of Chemical Education, Erkenntnis, American Scientist, Synthese, and Scientific American.

SIDELIGHTS:

Chemistry professor Eric R. Scerri is the author of The Periodic Table: Its Story and Its Significance, a study of the history of the most important categorization of the universe's elements. "I first became interested in chemistry in high school," Scerri told Stuart Cantrill in an interview for Sceptical Chymist. "I was fooling around at the back of the class and was made to sit at the front by one Mrs. Davis. When I was forced to listen to the material in this way I realized that it was all rather logical and elegant. We were studying basic nomenclature of salts and valences of various ions. On going to college I initially wanted to study chemistry and physics jointly but quickly opted for chemistry." Despite this, or perhaps because of it, a major part of Scerri's research concentrates on theories of how chemistry as a field relates to emerging fundamental theories of physics, especially quantum mechanics.

Anyone who has taken a high school chemistry course is at least somewhat familiar with the periodic table of elements—the arrangement of the basic substance of the universe in order according to similar characteristics. The periodic table was originally the creation of a Russian chemist named Dmitri Mendeleev, who in 1869 categorized the known elements according to their shared characteristics. "Scerri makes the point," Seymour Mauskopf wrote in a review for American Scientist, "that Mendeleev's achievement was not a paradigm shift but a more gradual evolution, spanning much of the 19th century and picking up momentum in the 1860s in the wake of the clarification of atomic weights by Stanislao Cannizzaro. Indeed, Scerri goes so far as to characterize the history of the periodic system as ‘the supreme counterexample to Thomas Kuhn's thesis, whereby scientific developments proceed in a sudden, revolutionary fashion.’"

Although other chemists also contributed to the concept and advancement of the periodic table, Mendeleev anticipated modern science by using the table to predict the characteristics of elements that had not yet been discovered. The Periodic Table traces the history of the ways in which Russian chemists and those of other nationalities explored the meanings of differences between the elements. "The first section on the history of the development of the periodic system almost verges on exciting," wrote contributor Simon Davies in a review for Suite101.com, "as he leads the reader from one scientist to the next as they pursue the tantalising relationships between different elements as they are discovered. He always writes from the point of view of the scientists themselves."

Scerri devotes half of The Periodic Table to understanding the relationship between chemistry and physics. "Most appealing about this part of the book," declared London Times Literary Supplement contributor John Emsley, "is Scerri's philosophical musing on the status of chemistry and his conclusion that it is not merely, as some theorists would have us believe, an adjunct of physics." Quantum mechanics theoretically allows physicists to calculate and predict the characteristics of elements from the basic principles that govern the universe. Scerri argues that this is not the case, not least because the designers of quantum mechanics, including the famous Danish physicist Niels Bohr, relied on chemistry to devise quantum mechanical theory. Scerri "convincingly argues that the abstract notion of the element was crucial to rescuing the periodic system in the light of the discovery of isotopes. He also rightly notes that Niels Bohr's atomic model relied heavily on spectroscopic data, rather than on theoretical calculations," stated Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent in a review for Nature. Bensaude-Vincent concluded: "Against repeated claims that chemistry has been reduced to physics, it is always useful to keep in mind that early quantum physics was based on chemical data."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

American Scientist, September 1, 2007, Seymour Mauskopf, "Elemental Deductions," review of The Periodic Table: Its Story and Its Significance, p. 456.

Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries, September 1, 2007, J. Garritano, review of The Periodic Table, p. 127.

Isis, September 1, 2007, Michael D. Gordin, review of The Periodic Table, p. 666.

Nature, January 18, 2007, Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent, "Display Elements," review of The Periodic Table, p. 263.

Times Literary Supplement (London, England), March 16, 2007, John Emsley, review of The Periodic Table, p. 29.

ONLINE

Oxford University Press Web site,http://www.oup.com/ (July 17, 2008), author profile.

Sceptical Chymist,http://blogs.nature.com/ (July 17, 2008), Stuart Cantrill, "Reactions—Eric Scerri," author interview.

Suite101.com,http://chemistry.suite101.com/ (July 17, 2008), Simon Davies, review of The Periodic Table.