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Eric Scerri

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Dr. Eric Scerri is a UCLA chemist, author and leading historian and philosopher of science, specializing in the periodic table of the chemical elements.  He received all his education in the UK at the universities of London, Southampton and Cambridge.  He held postdoctoral fellowships at the LSE in London and at Caltech in Pasadena.  Prior to moving to UCLA in 2000 he held a position at Purdue University.  Scerri is the author of The Periodic Table, Its Story and Its Significance, (Oxford University Press, 2007) and numerous other books on this and related topics.  He is also one of the founders of the Philosophy of Chemistry and editor-in-chief of the journal Foundations of Chemistry, published by Springer Press.  Dr. Scerri’s writing includes a number of books directed at the general public such as A Very Short Introduction to the Periodic Table, and 30-Second Elements.  He is a frequent contributor to popular science magazines such as Scientific American and New Scientist.  His more scholarly work includes a number of monographs and edited collections on the philosophy of chemistry, the periodic table and the elements.  He has published a total of ten books, many of which have been translated into a total more than a dozen languages.  He is also the author of about 150 scholarly articles.


Scerri has been a full-time lecturer in chemistry and history & philosophy of science at UCLA for the past sixteen years where he regularly teaches classes of 350 undergraduates as well as classes in history and philosophy of science.  His research ranges across many areas including chemical education, and historical and philosophical questions such as the relationship between chemistry and quantum physics.  He specializes in the electronic structure of atoms and has written extensively on topics such as the relative electron occupation and ionization of transition metal atoms and the status of the Madelung Rule.  His work in philosophy of science has mainly been on the question of the reduction of chemistry to quantum mechanics and the theoretical status of the periodic system.  Dr. Scerri has been a consultant for TV and radio programs and appears in TV interviews.  He was featured extensively in the recent PBS television series titled “The Mystery of Matter”  Dr. Scerri has given lectures to general audiences on all six continents.




The Periodic Table,  Its Story & Its Significance


Description: Its historical development, its significance, its Applications, the way it is featured in popular culture, by artists etc.  There has been a veritable explosion of interest in the periodic table and the elements in popular science and popular culture generally.  For example, major advertising campaigns by clothes outlets, J. Crew and The Gap.  The highly successful TV series, Breaking Bad, which ran to four seasons.  All of them have used the periodic table and the symbols of elements to good effect.  I am the leading expert on the science behind the periodic table and have written the definitive book on the subject for Oxford University Press.  The book especially focuses on the historical development of the periodic table and the status of this knowledge in modern science.  I have also written “A Very Short Introduction to the Periodic Table”, a more popular and condensed version of the initial book.  In addition I am the author of “A Tale of Seven Elements”, and “30-second Elements”, two books written for a general audience.  My first book has been reviewed positively in over 60 scientific journal and magazine articles and a number of websites.  Please see my own website for references.  I have spent the past few years travelling to many places around the world to lecture on this subject.  See my website for a list of public lectures.  My lecture begins with a brief survey of how the ancient Greek philosophers thought about the elements, moving on to the chemical revolution of Lavoisier at which time a new understanding of the concept of ‘element’ was reached.  John Dalton’s atomic theory and the assignment of atomic weights to reach of the elements was the first step in attempts to compare the elements and to order them into a coherent framework, namely the periodic table.  The discovery of the periodic table took place in the 1860s and was carried out independently by at least six individuals in different countries around the world.  The development of physics led to an understanding of the structure of the atom and an explanation of why the periodic table has the particular form that it has.  This knowledge continues to develop as does the discovery of new elements with ever higher atomic numbers.  I recently had an article published in Scientific American on the topic of the ‘Superheavy Elements’


What is this thing called science?


Description: My PhD is in history and philosophy of science, a subject that I continue to teach in the honors collegium department to the finest students across all disciplines at UCLA.  Having developed an introductory course called “What is this thing called science?” over a period of fifteen years or so, I now also bring these ideas to a wider audience of the general public.  My second topic is therefore, What is this thing called science?  An examination into the main ideas on what distinguishes sciences from other approaches to knowledge and other world-views.  Why is science so successful in raising our standard of living while many other world-views come and go and cannot claim to produce ‘progress’ in the same way that science can.  I draw on the views on major philosophers and historians of science who have pondered these questions, including Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn who made the term ‘paradigm’ famous.  In recent years the dominance of scientific knowledge has been challenged by many thinkers and this has led to the so called ‘science wars’ in which the very objectivity of science has come under criticism from some historians, sociologists and other post-modern thinkers.  I discuss these developments and try to reach some conclusion about the evolving role of science in modern society.  The lecture will give an introduction to these thought provoking notions such as Poppers idea of refutation through which he hoped to demarcate between science and pseudo-sciences such as astrology.  It will examine the view of Kuhn whereby scientific developments occur through revolutions and involve changes between paradigms which occur for non-rational reasons.  I will consider the views of two other very prominent philosophers science of the 20th century, namely the charismatic Hungarian Imre Lakatos and the outrageous Austrian of Paul Feyerabend who have electrified the field in their various ways.


An Introduction to the History & Philosophy of Chemistry


Description: In spite of its bad reputation chemistry is the ‘central science’ which is responsible for many of the benefits of modern science, medicine and technology.  Although the term ‘chemical’ is almost a term of abuse in the nutrition industry, in science chemistry is one of the three most fundamental disciplines apart from physics and biology.  In fact it is placed between these two fields in terms of the scale of complexity at which it operates and as such chemistry serves as the meeting point between the three basic sciences.  Rather surprisingly philosophers of science have almost completely ignored chemistry in trying to understand the nature of science.  Of course they have paid great attention to physics which is rightly considered to be the most fundamental science and also to biology, the science of life.  It is only in the last 20 years or so that a group of dedicated scholars have attempted to put the philosophy of chemistry on the map.  They have focused on such topics as the relationship of chemistry to quantum physics and the question of whether chemistry is fundamentally “nothing but physics”.  They have examined the unique nature of synthesis, which appears to be rather unique to chemistry.  Chemistry creates its own objects of study in many cases, unlike physics and biology.  The nature of scientific laws, explanations, causality and other traditional areas in the philosophy of science are also enriched by examining the role of specifically chemical explanations and laws.   The lecture will provide an overall survey of this the most neglected and misunderstood of the basic sciences, focusing on fundamental issues as well as technological applications.  The speaker has been one of the pioneers of this newly developing sub-discipline and will give an accessible overview of developments in the field from a historical perspective.




Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry, UCLA

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Los Angeles, CA 90095


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