The value of vague ideas in the development of the periodic system of chemical elements

Synthese 199 (3-4):10587-10614 (2021)
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The exploration of chemical periodicity over the past 250 years led to the development of the Periodic System of Elements and demonstrates the value of vague ideas that ignored early scientific anomalies and instead allowed for extended periods of normal science where new methodologies and concepts are developed. The basic chemical element provides this exploration with direction and explanation and has shown to be a central and historically adaptable concept for a theory of matter far from the reductionist frontier. This is explored in the histories of Prout’s hypothesis, Döbereiner Triads, element inversions necessary when ordering chemical elements by atomic weights, and van den Broeck’s ad-hoc proposal to switch to nuclear charges instead. The development of more accurate methods to determine atomic weights, Rayleigh and Ramsey’s gas separation and analytical techniques, Moseley’s X-ray spectroscopy to identify chemical elements, and more recent accelerator-based cold fusion methods to create new elements at the end of the Periodic Table point to the importance of methodological development complementing conceptual advances. I propose to frame the crossover from physics to chemistry not as a loss of accuracy and precision but as an increased application of vague concepts such as similarity which permit classification. This approach provides epistemic flexibility to adapt to scientific anomalies and the continued growth of chemical compound space and rejects the Procrustean philosophy of reductionist physics. Furthermore, it establishes chemistry with its explanatory and operational autonomy epitomized by the periodic system of elements as a gateway to other experimental sciences.



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Thomas Vogt
University of South Carolina

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