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Chemical Discovery and the Logicians' Program. A Problematic Pairing. By Jerome A. Berson

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Bioinorganic Chemistry
A Short Course. By
Rosette M. RoatMalone. WileyInterscience,
Hoboken 2002.
348 pp., softcover
$ 89.95.—ISBN
Bioinorganic chemistry is an area of
modern chemistry that is currently
booming. Consequently, in the last few
years it has come to be treated as a
separate subject in its own right in
chemistry teaching at almost every university, and it is now an established part
of the inorganic curriculum. That led to
a considerable demand for good up-todate textbooks on the subject. Although
there are at least three standard works
on bioinorganic chemistry on the
“Cowan”, and “Kaim and Schwederski”—the most recent editions of these
were published between 1995 and 1997,
and thus there is certainly room for
other books to take into account the
rapid developments in the area and its
increasingly interdisciplinary character.
With that in mind, the book reviewed
here is intended to serve advanced
students as an accompaniment to a
course of lectures, and it actually arises
from such a course given by the author.
The first two chapters are intended
to present the essential background
knowledge. Chapter 1 deals with the
fundamentals of inorganic coordination
chemistry, and touches on aspects such
as the kinetics and thermodynamics of
the complexation of metal ions, ligand-
field splitting, establishing the number
of valence electrons, and the theory of
electron transfer. Chapter 2 concerns
the biochemical fundamentals, including
the structures of proteins and nucleic
acids, enzyme kinetics, and terms such as
PCR, clones, and the genome. In introducing such a wide variety of topics
within only 65 pages, it is unavoidable
that the treatment is superficial. Nevertheless, these chapters at least impress
upon the student the wide-ranging and
interdisciplinary nature of the subject,
and they point the way towards the
specialist literature on individual topics.
Chapter 3 focuses on spectroscopic
and analytical techniques used in bioinorganic chemistry. The considerable
emphasis that is given to the various
instrumental and theoretical methods
throughout the book is very welcome in
view of their enormous importance in
modern bioinorganic research.
The second half of the book is
devoted to detailed discussions of four
selected examples: the oxygen-binding
proteins hemoglobin and myoglobin,
the copper enzymes, the enzyme nitrogenase, and—in the author's special
field—the medical applications of
metal compounds. Based on these examples, the chapters show very clearly and
in great detail how, through the combined skills of biochemistry, protein
crystallography, and synthetic chemical
modeling, together with a wide range of
physicochemical investigation techniques
and modern methods of computer-aided
chemistry, the structure and function of
bioinorganic sites can be elucidated. The
author's penchant for computer-based
methods and the Internet is evident
throughout, for example, in the frequent
citing of Internet links and PDB codes,
and a separate section is devoted to the
subject. These sources, as well as the
many references to the original literature,
offer the reader easy access to more
detailed information, and will act as a
stimulus to use the new media.
However, the book has a shortcoming: many of the drawings and illustrations show a lack of care in their
preparation, and one finds mistakes
that should not occur, especially in a
book intended primarily for students:
just one example is the peroxodiphosphate group in NAD+/NADP+ (Figure
1.12, p. 20).
7 2003 Wiley-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim
Roat-Malone's limiting of the discussion to four topic areas has meant
that some important bioinorganic systems, such as the photosystems, Rieske
centers, and carboanhydrase, are not
mentioned, and they do not even appear
in the index. Thus, the book is basically
different from the standard textbooks
mentioned above, which provide a more
or less systematic overview of all the
functional units of bioinorganic chemistry, arranged according to elements and/
or functions. Therefore, it cannot serve
as an alternative to those standard
works. However, Roat-Malone's concept of explaining the principles of
bioinorganic chemistry and the nature
of bioinorganic research in a lively and
interesting way by means of a few
selected examples has advantages. It
not only offers the teacher some stimulating ideas to use in a lecture course
(even though some might wish to choose
different examples or add others). The
book will certainly give interested students an appetite for more, and could
stimulate a few to begin their own
research in the fascinating area of bioinorganic chemistry—and indeed that is
exactly the declared aim of the book.
Franc Meyer
Institut f*r Anorganische Chemie
Universit/t G1ttingen (Germany)
Chemical Discovery and the
Logicians' Program
A Problematic Pairing. By Jerome A.
Berson. Wiley-VCH,
Weinheim 2003. xiii
+ 194 pp., softcover E 39.90.—
ISBN 3-527-30797-4
Having successfully “practic[ed] history
without a license” in a previous book,
Jerome Berson is now practicing philosophy without a license. It is a potentially
more hazardous venture, because a long
Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 2003, 42, 5924 – 5925
tradition had previously denied chemistry any relevance to philosophy. According to Herbert Dingle (1949), “Chemistry rightly figures prominently in the
history of science; in the philosophy of
science it should not figure at all”.
Fortunately that position is no longer
viable, but Berson faced other caveats.
One preliminary reader of Berson's
proposal wrote dismissively that many
of the issues were “old news” to philosophers. Berson replied that old philosophical ideas often acquire new life,
and may also not be “old news” to
chemists. Furthermore, his aims were
carefully circumscribed: determining
whether methodological rules, laid
down by certain philosophers of science
(“the logicians”), accurately describe
how chemistry works. The answer was
to come from a comparison of the
philosophers’ prescriptions with chemical investigations. Although this procedure is controversial, Berson has many
philosophical allies who believe that
theories about science should be tested
against actual scientific practice.
Berson's principal target is Karl
Popper, who asserted that the main
business of scientists is refuting theories
by falsifying them. Thus, scientists
should create theories that are readily
falsifiable, and their colleagues should
zealously attempt to refute them.
Berson attacks this decree with a half
dozen case studies that simply don’t
obey it. For example, many organic
syntheses involve no theoretical intent
and little theoretical content. When
chemists do propound theories, such as
Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 2003, 42, 5924 – 5925
KekulD's benzene hypothesis, they often
blatantly violate Popperian norms. In
addition, theories that have supposedly
been “decisively” refuted regain life
because of new evidence.
Berson's counter-examples are well
argued and historically well supported,
but (as he concedes) he is hardly the first
to question Popper's thesis. And it is
unlikely that attacks like his will permanently discredit Popper's prescriptions;
empirical refutation of philosophical
theories will be no more lasting than
empirical refutation of most chemical
What, then, has Berson achieved?
His readers will certainly better understand how chemistry is actually done
and better appreciate its trans-disciplinary importance. That might lead some
philosophers to re-evaluate chemistry's
significance for the understanding of
science. These accomplishments alone
would constitute success, but Berson
hopes for more.
He suggests that “philosophical
methodologists” may help chemists
“choose the best route to continue the
journey” to understanding. Given that
chemists have shown resistance to any
norms of theorizing, is this realistic? I
would instead welcome an informed,
respectful, and vigorous questioning of
chemists’ presuppositions by philosophers of science, and vice versa. The
very success of chemistry carries its own
dangers, not the least of which is complacent self-satisfaction. If philosophers
can help us avoid this temptation, we
will owe them much.
Books such as Berson's return the
favor by lending support to those philosophers who maintain that traditional
philosophy of science has been too much
oriented towards theoretical physics,
neglecting much of other science. Fortunately, the last decade has witnessed
the flowering of philosophy of chemistry—a half dozen or so books and two
journals devoted to philosophy of
chemistry have already appeared.
Chemists who dip into any of these will
find voices and viewpoints that address
many of their own concerns.
While there is much to admire in
Berson's text, I do have several reservations. All of his examples are drawn
from organic chemistry. And there is an
absence of differentiation within several
important categories, as in the lack of
distinction among different levels of
“theory”. A critic of Berson's analysis
might dismiss it by contending that
Popper's approach applies only to “fundamental” laws such as those of theoretical physics, making chemical examples irrelevant. This charge is certainly
answerable, but it should be faced.
Whatever its occasional shortcomings, Berson's newest book has considerable strengths. It is the type of work
that should be read by all our colleagues,
inside and outside of chemistry.
Stephen J. Weininger
Department of Chemistry
Worcester Polytechnic Institute
Worcester, MA (USA)
DOI: 10.1002/anie.200385066
7 2003 Wiley-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim
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discovery, logicians, berson, chemical, program, pairing, jerome, problematic
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