Rene Deplanque

Past and Present of FIZ CHEMIE Berlin: Interview with Dr. René Deplanque, Managing Director

... by Svetla Baykoucheva

ImageDr. René Deplanque was born in 1950 in Lübeck, northern Germany. After completing his „Diplom― studies as a chemical engineer in Hamburg, he obtained a Master‘s of Science degree in electrochemistry and a Masters of Philosophy degree in physical chemistry at Sir John Cass College, Guild Hall University, London. After subsequently gaining his Doctor of Philosophy degree in engineering sciences, in addition to his research activities, he taught electrochemistry and physical chemistry at the University of Cambridge. After returning to Germany in 1983, he worked for Brown Boveri in Mannheim where he was Head of the Electrochemistry Laboratory and Head of the Computer Department for the company‘s German operations, and also served as assistant to the Board. In 1988 he moved to the Gmelin Institute of the Max Planck Gesellschaft and was Head of the Gmelin-Online Project. In 1994 he became Managing Director of the Fachinformationszentrum CHEMIE GmbH in Berlin (FIZ CHEMIE Berlin; the Chemistry Information Center); a position which he holds to the present day. In 2000 René Deplanque was appointed Professor of the Technical University Berlin. He is a member of various national and international committees. He acts as adviser to several organizations and governments.
More information on FITZ CHEMIE Berlin is available at

Svetla Baykoucheva: Many readers of the Chemical Information Bulletin are familiar with FIZ CHEMIE, and some members of the ACS Chemical Information Division (CINF) have even been directly affiliated with it through their employment. It would be interesting to hear from you about some important moments in the history of the organization, what its philosophy is, and what distinguishes it from other players in the chemical information field. What are the most important things you would like our readers to know about FIZ CHEMIE?

René Deplanque: Our history goes as far back as1830 when we were founded as "pharmaceutical abstracting service." In 1840 the name was changed to "Chemisches Zentralblatt," which existed until 1969. We continued as a Department of the German Chemical Society and produced the first ChemInform Reaction Handbook in print. In 1981, the German Center for Chemical Information, FIZ CHEMIE Berlin, was founded, and the ChemInform editorial board formed the basis of this institute.

SB: Which organizations and individuals are the main users of your products?

RD: Our products service a large number of customers in research, industry and in the teaching process. We are servicing large research networks as well as practically all major companies of the chemical industry. We advise governments and governmental bodies. This advice is given nationally as well as internationally and, with our very large e-learning systems, we supply all German schools, Universities and the industry with high quality teaching material. Just within the teaching area we had in 2009 nearly six million single users. Therefore it is very difficult to pinpoint individuals or organizations.

SB: Could you tell us something about your personal life and interests? What made you switch from electrochemistry to chemical information? What do you do outside of your professional work?

RD: During my study times I collected degrees as other people are collecting stamps and this happened in a variety of subject areas such as chemical engineering, physical chemistry, electrochemistry and corrosion engineering. Only within chemical information could I combine all those areas. What do I do outside my professional work? I play the guitar, classic and modern blues. I am a member of the Magic Circle in Berlin, and an associate of the Magic Club in Nice. Being a magician is very helpful—if I can't solve a problem the normal way, I have always something to fall back on. I also love to cook, and I am producing ancient ship models.

SB: Several years ago, I attended the First German Conference on Cheminformatics, which took place in the beautiful town of Goslar. The audience at the conference was mainly German, with a few foreign participants. I enjoyed very much both the conference and the social program, but I was struck to see so few women there. If I remember it correctly, there were 125 attendees, and I could count no more than 10 women. I have attended many conferences in Europe and the United States (not only in chemical information, but also, as a lab-bench researcher, conferences in such fields as chemistry of natural products, biochemistry, microbiology, and molecular biology), but I have never seen such a small percentage of women at any conference that I have ever attended. Is the field of Chemical Information mostly male-dominated, or this is typical of other areas of science in Germany?

RD: If you would come to Goslar now, you will find that it is still a nice town; the conference is still very interesting and it became fully international, doubling in size. You will find that there are many more women now than there were in the first Goslar conference. I do not think that we have a gender problem in the sciences. But in the past there were by far more male than female students in the sciences. Luckily, this changed dramatically and now we have nearly an equal percentage of male and female students. Coming back to the area of Cheminformatics, you will find that this is still a specialized area and that it is taught at only very few German universities. It is, indeed, still male-dominated, but in recent years the number of women is increasing.

SB: In the academic institutions in Germany, what is the role that librarians play in supporting research and education? What is the status of librarians in these institutions? What education is required for such positions? What does a generic job description for a chemistry librarian in a German academic institution look like?

RD: There is quite a difference in the position of an American librarian and a German librarian. In Germany, the librarian has still a very traditional role. They are the ones to whom you go only to get information. Unfortunately, the librarian is seldom in the position of partner to the researcher. This is unfortunate because in most cases, the librarians have to have an academic degree in librarianship to work in a scientific library. Only very rarely do scientists decide to go into a career as a librarian. I think that one of the problems that we have to cope with is that universities depend on reputation, and reputation depends on research; librarians in Germany are not part of the research process. Therefore, the librarians do not have their true position within this framework. In recent years, this very traditional positioning of the librarian is weakening a bit, but it will still take many years before the librarian is accepted as a valued partner for the scientist.

SB: Many chemistry resources require a steep learning curve. In the United States, chemistry librarians do a lot of instructional classes for end users. How is the training of researchers and students organized in Germany?

RD: The librarian in Germany is highly educated but only very seldom introduced into the education process, especially not in the sciences. Very few universities have courses on teaching the use of information systems that are actually led by a librarian. It is very sad that, within the educational system in Germany, the true value of the librarian is underestimated, and because of this librarians are not used to their full potential. The training of researchers and students is organized by the research professionals within the framework of their department. Lectures are also given by scientific assistants and professors. This is true for both regular universities and universities in the applied sciences.

SB: Are there any specific cheminformatics areas that are predominant in Germany? Which are the institutions in Germany where research in this field is done? Where do researchers in this area publish their papers?

RD: The centers of cheminformatics in Germany have changed. In the past it was always the University of Erlangen that played this role. Now, the universities of Bonn and Hamburg are also strong in this field. Cheminformatics is still pretty small compared to Bioinformatics. The researchers mainly publish in the ACS‘ Journal of Chemical Information and Modeling, as well as in the Journal of Cheminformatics.

SB: FIZ CHEMIE has been very generous in its support for the ACS Chemical Information Division (CINF), in general, and the Chemical Information Bulletin (CIB), in particular, and we are very grateful for this support. What is the relationship between the German Chemical Society (GDCh) and ACS and between the Chemistry Information Center in Germany and CINF? What are the main past and current initiatives and what are the plans for the future?

RD: There are many consultations and close relations between the ACS and the GDCh. One example of this cooperation is the formation of a working group between the divisions of Computer in Chemistry (CIC) of the GDCh and CINF of the ACS. The task of this working group is the development of a repository of teaching materials for chemical information. The content will be provided by the major universities of both countries and will be open access. The first version of this repository will be launched within this year. This kind of interdivisional working group will be extended into other areas.

SB: In the late eighties, while attending a molecular biology conference in the Harz Mountains, I had the opportunity to visit East Berlin. Two years ago I went back to Berlin for a conference on scientometrics and was thrilled by the new spirit and the infectious mood of the city. One evening, while crossing a bridge on the Spree River, I saw people dancing on a boat. What happened in Berlin after the reunification that it now competes with Paris in atmosphere and liveliness? How did the unification of Germany affect you personally and professionally? What was its impact on the chemical information field?

RD: Berlin developed into a very young city, as after the reunification many artists and young people moved there. It came to a total remake of a capital. Practically all famous architects took part in building new city centers and exploring ways to redesign and rebuild the old and ancient parts of this very large city. If Berlin is having a party (and there are many of these during a year), it is expected that at least one million people will attend. When this drops under 700,000, it will be seen as too small and will be dropped. I moved to Berlin just after the reunification and experienced the tremendous spirit which was developing here. The merger of two completely different cultures and the renewal of a totally run down system is something that can only be experienced and would be very difficult to explain. What we had was a real revolution, but no one was dead and nobody was hurt (at least, not physically). West Germany became more East and East Germany became West, with all the problems and difficulties which are inherent to such a process. The impact which this had on the field of chemical information was that we were able to employ many new and experienced scientists, who came to us with a different background and with new and different ideas. Also, new and different collections of data were found. They are normally hidden in the treasure chests of the chemical industry, like our now large collections of thermodynamic data. More than 25% of our staff are from former East Germany and are highly respected for their knowledge, their achievements, their work, and their humanity. In the sciences we are already united. As far as the society as a whole is concerned, there is still some work to be done.

SB: René, thank you for sharing with us your interesting perspective on cheminformatics in Germany.

Bonnie Lawlor

From the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI) to the National Federation of Advanced Information Services (NFAIS)

Interview with Bonnie Lawlor by Svetla Baykoucheva

ImageBonnie Lawlor is Executive Director of NFAIS, a membership association for organizations that aggregate, organize and facilitate access to authoritative information. Prior to NFAIS, Bonnie was Senior Vice President and General Manager of UMI’s Library Division (now ProQuest Information and Learning) where she was responsible for the development and worldwide sales and marketing of their products to academic, public, and government libraries.

Before UMI, Bonnie was Executive Vice President of the Database Publishing Division at the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI – now Thomson Reuters, Healthcare & Science) where she was responsible for product development, production, publisher relations, editorial content, and worldwide sales and marketing of all of ISI’s products and services.

Bonnie Lawlor Bonnie is a very active member of the American Chemical Society. She is currently a Councilor for the Division of Chemical Information and an elected member of the Council Policy Committee. She is a past chair of the American Chemical Society‘s Committee on Copyrights and the ACS Committee on Divisional Activities, and has also served on the ACS Committee on Budget and Finance and the Committee on Nominations and Elections. She is currently a Trustee and Secretary of the Chemical Structure Association (CSA) Trust, an internationally recognized organization established to promote the critical importance of chemical information to advances in chemical research. She also serves on the Board of LYRASIS (formerly PALINET) and on the Board of the Philosopher‘s Information Center.

Bonnie has also served as a Board and Executive Committee Member of the Information Industry Association (IIA) and a Board Member of the American Society for Information Science (ASIS). Ms. Lawlor earned a BS in Chemistry from Chestnut Hill College (Philadelphia), an MS in chemistry from St. Joseph‘s University (Philadelphia), and an MBA from the Wharton School (University of Pennsylvania). In 1992 Dr. Garfield wrote about Bonnie‘s accomplishments at ISI that was published in the Current Contents and can be viewed at

Svetla Baykoucheva: You have held a number of executive positions in different companies and non-profit organizations and you have served as an elected official in the American Chemical Society (ACS). It seems that all the organizations that you have been affiliated with professionally have something in common—they are all related to scientific information and scientific publishing. How did you come to this field, what triggered your interest in it, and what were the main factors that have influenced your career (e.g., education, chance, timing, etc.)?

Bonnie Lawlor: Svetla, I fell into the field of scientific publishing quite unintentionally. Immediately after college I went to the University of Pennsylvania to study for my Ph.D. Upon completion of my coursework I left to find a job as I had become engaged to a Vietnam War veteran who wanted to complete his college degree. With only a Bachelor‘s degree in chemistry the opportunities were less than exciting, plus I was uncertain as to whether or not a laboratory career was really for me. I saw an advertisement for a chemical indexer in the now defunct Philadelphia Bulletin. I had no idea what being a ―chemical indexer‖ actually entailed, but I interviewed, was tested, and was offered the position at the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI). After two years I was hooked. ISI was, at that time, small, entrepreneurial and very interesting. Plus I was able to use my education and love of the theory of chemistry without having to spill chemicals (which I had been known to do!). Ultimately I became involved with other areas of the company - Current Contents, the citation indexes, etc. – and was caught up in the industry transition from print to electronic publications. An exciting era only made more so by the introduction and evolution of the Web!

SB: You are currently Executive Director of NFAIS. What does this acronym stand for and what does this organization do?

BL: NFAIS is short for the National Federation of Advanced Information Services. It is a non-profit organization that was founded in 1958. At that time President Eisenhower directed the National Science Foundation to ensure the provision of indexing, abstracting, translation, and other information services that would lead to a more effective dissemination of scientific information. He believed that science had won WWII and that science would keep the peace. As the U.S. mobilized to create a new information infrastructure for the promotion of scientific innovation, G. Miles Conrad, Director of Biological Abstracts (later BIOSIS and now part of Thomson Reuters), called an meeting of leading not-for-profit and government scientific Abstracting & Indexing services. He encouraged the group to join forces, cooperate, and interact so that as a unified force they could make rapid progress in achieving national priorities while simultaneously promoting the international advancement of science. As a result of his efforts a new organization - the National Federation of Science Abstracting and Indexing Services (NFSAIS) - was formed with the charter membership of fourteen information services, including Chemical Abstracts, Engineering Index, AGRICOLA, Current List of Medical Literature (NLM), etc. The organization has since expanded beyond science to include all scholarly disciplines. Membership is now available to for-profit organizations and is no longer limited to A&I services. NFAIS currently serves all those who create, aggregate, organize, and otherwise provide ease of access to and effective navigation and use of authoritative information and our Member organizations represent a global cross-section of content and technology providers, including database creators, publishers, libraries, host systems, information technology developers, content management providers, and other related groups. Despite diverse interests, all NFAIS members embrace the philosophy underlying the organization‘s original motto, Promotion through Cooperation, and work together to facilitate collaboration and communication throughout the Information Community. The work of NFAIS is to:

  • Facilitate the exchange of information among NFAIS members
  • Promote NFAIS members and their essential role within the Information Community
  • Encourage discussion, understanding and cooperation across all Information Community sectors
  • Sponsor topical conferences, seminars and educational courses
  • Publish newsletters, current awareness alerts, books and reports
  • Develop Codes of Practice, Guiding Principles and White Papers on Information Policy and New Technologies

SB: Being Executive Vice President of the Database Publishing Division of the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI is now Thomson Reuters, Healthcare & Science) and being responsible for so many areas (product development, production, publisher relations, editorial content, and worldwide sales and marketing of all of ISI’s products and services) could be a daunting responsibility. What imprint, do you think, your work has made on ISI’s success and image?

BL: Over the twenty-eight year span that I spent at ISI, I would perhaps choose a few ―urning points‖where I know that I had an impact on the outcome and the ultimate shaping of the company. The first is regarding ISI‘s chemical information products. Index Chemicus, a weekly alert to new chemical compounds, was launched by Dr. Garfield in the early 1960‘s before I joined the company. It was not a popular move and three vice presidents even left the company, partially due to this initiative that they perceived as being risky. In 1982 the entire chemistry product line was made a separate division under my leadership, with the directive to make it work. We were responsible for product development, production, sales and marketing. We had a great team and many in CINF may remember them – Judy Sarkisian, Jack Coulson, Kerry Louiso – and the indexing and encoding staff, some of who are still with the company – Pat Rosso, Maria Gonzalez, Josie Ortega, Shelly Rahman, Dave Jordan, etc. We believed in the importance of reaction indexing and wanted to create a database of new chemical reactions in organic chemistry, but had no funding. We were given approval to see if we could obtain seed money from interested chemical and pharmaceutical companies. So we launched a Charter Club in which those organizations who provided funding would have a say in the development of the reaction product. We were able to obtain the funding, develop the product and, through a partnership with Molecular Design Ltd. (MDL) offer a graphic interface to the reactions. It was one of the first of its kind and was quite successful. As a result the chemistry product line became financially viable and grew, and it remains a source of viable product offerings from Thomson Reuters. I am extremely proud of everyone who had a part in making that happen as the odds were not in our favor.

By the mid to late 1980‘s the entire abstracting and indexing community faced another challenge – how to adapt its print products and services to the newly emerging digital environment sparked in 1981 by the launch of personal computers and fueled by the emergence of the CD-ROM and diskette distribution media. We were very fortunate. We had been creating electronic versions of all of our citation indexes, Current Contents and the chemical products as a by- product of computerized production that most major A&I services had adopted in the 1960‘s. The issue was to take the data already available on magnetic tape and make it compatible with the new platforms. Change is not easy and it took some doing to convince staff (and in some cases management) that digital was the future. Again, my staff rose to the occasion – Theresa Rosen on the citation index side and Beverly Bartolomeo on the Current Contents side and together with the assistance of programmers, editorial staff, sales and marketing, we made it happen. Within two years 20% of our print base had converted to the new format. This shift to digital products and services was coincidental with another major change that was specific to ISI, for we had caught the attention of JPT - a publishing company owned by Ted Cross, Joe Pallazolo and Paul Neuthaler. They were interested in acquiring the company – which they did in 1988. And over the next four years they helped us grow the business. During that period there were two decisions that I was able to shape that were to have a significant long-term impact. First, was the pricing of electronic products. JPT believed that they should be priced lower than print because there was no printing involved, shipping was cheaper, etc. I was just as convinced that they should be priced higher because of factors that were unique to digital products – ongoing investment in technology and software, training (digital information products were still relatively new), support via help desk activities and the fact that initial purchases would be by existing customers migrating from the print. It took a lot of meetings, presentations and analyses, but they ultimately agreed to launch Current Contents on Diskette at a price higher than the print. A good move if I say so myself! Remember, in the 1980‘s computer literacy was not the norm. Customer training and support was not limited to the product that was being sold, but spilled over to the technology as well.

In 1988, help desk phone activity grew 72% over prior year and 1989 grew 105% over 1988. By 1990 there was a 581% increase in phone activity. And the staff handling that activity had to be both computer and product literate. In addition, my guess was right – initial customers of electronic products were due to cannibalization of the print. And, as noted earlier, within just two years 20% of the print base was gone.

(These stats appeared in a report that I wrote for NFAIS in 1991that was published in Information Distribution Issues for the 90’s: copies available upon request). The second decision that I was able to get approved was to add English language author abstracts to ISI products. Up until this time they were only included in the print issues of Index Chemicus and Current Chemical Reactions and I believed that they were an essential addition to our new electronic offerings. In addition, many of our competitors already had abstracts in their products. Again, many discussions and meetings – and outreach to publishers. In the end approval was won and the announcement was celebrated amid much fanfare at a customer party during the online Information meeting in New York in May, 1991. JPT funded a number of innovations that made ISI very attractive to much larger content providers. After four years - and many presentations to competing suitors - the company was sold to Thomson (now Thomson Reuters) in 1992. Svetla, your question made me think of specific instances where a visible and long-lasting impact was made. In general, I would say that the combination of my fiscal responsibility and love of ISI together was a great foil to Dr. Garfield‘s creativity and drive. Throw in the unbelievable genius of people such as Irv Sher, George Vladutz and Henry Small, and the work ethic and loyalty of hundreds of employees who were devoted to the company – ISI became a major force in the Information community. I was just one of many and I am grateful that I had the opportunity to be part of the unique ISI family.

SB: What did it take to work and succeed in an environment (such as the one at ISI at that time) that was so innovative, dynamic and competitive—and dominated by a mythological figure such as Eugene Garfield? Could you tell us what your first encounter with Dr. Garfield was?

BL: As I mentioned earlier, when I joined ISI it was relatively small and very entrepreneurial. We all were made to feel that we were part of the creation of something of value. When a customer wrote to tell Dr. Garfield that a product or service solved a problem, he let us know (of course, we also heard all of the complaints). It was truly nourishing environment. In the early days I did not observe biases of any kind. No matter what your gender, color or educational status – if you had an idea, Dr. Garfield was willing to hear it. It was an environment that offered great opportunity if you were creative and willing to work hard. It was also a crazy place to work – perhaps due to the culture of the late 60‘s and early 70‘s. People parked their motorcycles by their desks. The work dress ranged from normal to eccentric. I remember one person wore baby doll pajamas to the office and one executive always wore a small teddy bear on his belt (these same two people ―streaked‖ at one of the company parties!). When my boss complained about the length (or lack thereof) of miniskirts, the corporate (unofficial) response was that the only dress code requirement was shoes! The examples are endless. But when I went to UMI in the 1990‘s I heard similar stories from their staff. I suspect the ISI environment was a combination of the times and the personality of our corporate leader. I still smile about my first encounter with Dr. Garfield. Every day the coffee shop in the lobby of our building sent a cart to each floor in mid-morning and afternoon so that everyone could get a snack. While I waited in line by the elevators to get my caffeine fix in the early days of my employment, a rather strange vision emerged from the elevators wearing a gray jacket with a fur collar and wild hair reminiscent of Albert Einstein. I asked the person behind me who it was (I thought perhaps he was a handyman). When the laughter subsided I was told the vision in question was Dr. Garfield. Ultimately I came to know, respect, and occasionally fear him. I learned so very much from him – the importance of such things as quality, responsiveness to customers, innovation – and being a professional. Even though we competed with the American Chemical Society, he made sure that we were active in the ACS - particularly in what is now the Division of Chemical Information. He said that we were chemists and should actively promote the profession. He encouraged us to get involved and to have good working relationships with CAS staff. It is due to him that I and many others at ISI became active. In retrospect, I could not have had a better mentor. We still keep in touch and I treasure our relationship.

SB: The Science Citation Index has provided a new approach to information retrieval. Web of Science, which is based on the Science Citation Index, does not use topical indexing—it heavily relies on words used in titles of documents. What will happen if a particular term has been misspelled in the title of an article? Is Web of Science going to miss this article?

BL: I cannot address ISI‘s current processing system, but I can briefly talk about the ―unique word dictionary (UWD)‖ and the process that was in place for providing accurate index terms for the citation indexes while I was there. Rather than use a controlled thesaurus for creating index terms, the decision very early in ISI‘s history was to use the natural language of science that would evolve over time. Simply put, we used the title words from each article processed. To minimize errors, every title was separately keyed by two different staff and the results were compared. In addition, the words were checked against the master dictionary file compiled to date and new terms were flagged. These were checked to see if they were simply author misspellings, keying errors that had gotten through, or real new terms being introduced for the first time. All terms were standardized to American spelling. The unique word dictionary was not a dictionary in the traditional sense of the term. It was a compilation of unique words that had been taken from titles and checked as thoroughly as is humanly possible and it grew in size over time. It allowed us to identify when new terms or phrases were coined and to track changes in science from a unique perspective, including the frequency by which a certain term was used during a given time period. This is a very simplistic description of the UWD. It actually was made up of several files: a file of words having 12 or fewer letters; a file of words containing 13-30 letters; and a cross-reference file that included variant-to-preferred spellings of words. In addition, there was a file of two-word ―terms‖ created by the editors if they believed it was necessary for accurate search and retrieval. As I mentioned earlier, quality in all of its manifestations was an ISI goal and information scientists such as Irv Sher and George Vladutz were unbelievably innovative in developing systems that would provide accurate search and retrieval. Did errors get through? Yes, and the systems immediately were modified so that the probability of the same error happening again would be pretty low. I should note that the indexing process for the chemistry products was quite different. The indexes were created by chemists who would apply standard nomenclature rules to create the names of the new compounds that had been indexed, along with other terms that would identify relevant biological activities, new synthetic reactions, etc.

SB: How did the ISI decide which journals to cover?

BL: There was a set of criteria by which a journal was measured before being added to a specific product line. Journal evaluation was a never-ending process that was used not only to review the new journals under consideration, but also to review those currently covered to see if such coverage remained appropriate. The criteria included the timeliness of the journal - did it have and meet a regular publication schedule; were the articles written in English; were author-abstracts included; did it conform to standards for article publishing (e.g. have descriptive titles, author names and addresses, full references to cited materials, funding information for the research, etc.); were the articles peer-reviewed; was the publisher known and respected. If it was not a brand new journal, we would look at the citations to the journal as a measure of acceptance in the market and the quality of research that it published. Respected abstracting and indexing services serve as a ―marketing‖ arm for publishers. They offer a unique distribution channel – exposing journals before the eyes of thousands of scholars and researchers around the globe. Therefore, it was very important to have published criteria and to strictly adhere to those criteria so that one could clearly justify exclusion of a title to a journal editor or publisher and still maintain a good relationship with him or her.

I took a quick look at the current selection criteria posted on the Thomson Reuters site. It is pretty much the same, with the addition of criteria for electronic journals, international diversity for global markets and specific criteria for material focused on region-specific products (

SB: You have been involved in database publishing for a long time. How do you see the future of the secondary publishers? How will models such as Google Scholar that rely on parsing the full text of documents affect the commercial databases and in what respect? How will services such as PubChem affect the commercial vendors of chemical property information?

BL: I believe that the current climate of change in scholarly communication will impact all publishers, both primary and secondary. A 2008 blog entry by Clay Shirky ( tools-and-transformations-clay-shirky) says it all. The Internet, like the printing press before it, has created an information revolution that is generating new forms of scholarly communication and publishing. That said, I will focus my comments on the Abstracting and Indexing (A&I) world. The concept of an A&I service was first noted in 1665 with the creation of The Journal Des Scavans. The journal‘s primary purpose was to catalog and provide a brief description of the principal books then being printed in Europe, as well as to provide readable and critical accounts of current scholarly writings. Its goal was to facilitate information discovery and to minimize information overload. A&I services as we know them began to emerge in the early 1800‘s when there were approximately 300 scientific journals. Since then their purpose has never changed: They play an essential role in allowing scholars to navigate masses of information with relative ease. The bibliographic pointers such as keywords, subject indexes, authors, titles, etc. facilitate the discovery of information; abstracts allow the evaluation of a document‘s relevance to one‘s research; and links – either a bibliographic reference, or in today‘s world, an electronic link, allow retrieval of the full text. And as over the years these services build a body of information, they serve as the continuum between past, current and future scholarly thinking upon which all human knowledge is built. This is the essential role that organizations such as CAS and ISI play even today. They began when scholarly communication was print-based and they have adapted; we now progress through a transition consisting of both print and digital media. You have raised two issues, the first dealing with Google Scholar (and this can be extended to all free information on the Web) and the second dealing with scholarly information services that are available from the government or have been established using an open access business model such as the Public Library of Science (PLoS).

Based on survey results that I have heard NFAIS members quote, researchers use Google 100% of the time for concept searches and to obtain ideas. Who doesn‘t use it? John Regazzi reported on this trend almost six years ago ( But when researchers become involved in a specific project they turn to the more traditional services offered by their libraries or information centers in order to obtain their information, and they do so for two reasons: 1) they know that these services cover the source material in which the vast majority of scientists and scholars publish (Google Scholar does not); and, 2) they know that these services provide authoritative, reliable content (all Google content is not reliable). To the extent that a free A&I service such as PubMed offers the same authoritative content and comparable coverage as a fee-based service, researchers will use the free service if it meets their requirements; if not, they will use a fee-based version if one is available to them. Fee-based products based on MedLine are a good example. There have been many competing variations of MedLine over the years and they have done well based upon the features and functionalities that their creators built around the content. They created ―value‖ that could be measured by the user. A&I services need to continue their never-ending investment in the creation of measurable value. Open Access journals are covered by most A&I services. I view such journals as an alternative to the traditional primary publishing model. Even the venerable publisher Springer Verlag has moved into the open access arena, acquiring BioMed Central in 2008. Open Access journals are not head-to-head competitors to A&I services.

Having said that, I do believe that the well-established A&I services are vulnerable if they do not pay attention to the new forms of scholarly communication. Their charter is to facilitate the discovery of and access to scholarly and scientific information. As the primary basis of that communication (journals) evolves into a more dynamic, online, collaborative ―conversation,‖ they must adapt their services to capture and preserve the content of the conversation. Not easy, as to do so one must deal with issues of authority (credible content), privacy, ownership (copyright), etc. But they must ensure that they deliver products offering ease of access to all the available information that is needed by their particular user base – no matter what the source. Traditional A&I services have the knowledge and expertise to be the A&I services of the future. But they must embrace the new forms of scholarly communication today, not ignore them, and not ―wait and see.‖ I see the biggest hurdles to their future being the fact that to offer high quality A&I services requires a significant ongoing investment. During the journal explosion of the 1960‘s and 70‘s many questioned their ability to survive. With the help of technology, many did; others were ultimately acquired by stronger organizations. The information explosion sparked by the Web is having a similar impact on the growth of information. This, combined with the constant struggle to identify new business models, makes them vulnerable in the long term to new, creative competitors who can freely experiment with business models as they have no ―baggage‘ (existing revenue streams) that could be threatened. But if the A&I community is aggressive in creating new value-added products by leveraging their well-honed skills on the growing body of Web-based literature – creating the ―A&I seal of approval‖ for scholarly users of the Web – their future could be secured. Bottom line, survival for all traditional content providers - including libraries – is to insure that they are providing value as measured by the user. SB: You have held many elected positions at ACS, and you have also served as editor of the Bulletin. What was your role as editor and how did you put the issues together? Of the many roles that you have played in ACS, in general, and in the Chemical Information Division (CINF), which one was most interesting and satisfying to you and which one, in your opinion, has made a difference for ACS and CINF?

Putting the Chemical Information Bulletin (CIB) together was a manual labor intensive process when I was editor (1977-1983). There were three printed issues per year. I had to solicit articles and advertisements and create the actual typewritten materials (there were no personal computers). I was fortunate, though. My boss, Gabrielle (Gaby) Revesz had been editor before me and was very active in CINF. I was permitted to use the talents of the ―paste-up‖ artists that put together the print editions of Index Chemicus. They did the actual copy and layout work and prepared the final copy for the printer on huge sheets of paper. We used the same printer used for ISI‘s chemistry products (CINF paid the cost of printing). The only pain process was the mailing. We would get the division mailing labels in zip code order from ACS Headquarters. We then had to manually apply the labels to the printed Bulletins, bundle them by zip code (bundles had to consist of 10 or more CIB‘s going to the same zip code), and put them in mail bags from the post office (supplied by ISI‘s wonderful mail room staff). The bags were then hauled (not by me ) to the 30th Street Post Office a few blocks away where we had a non-profit license to mail the copies. I have to say that putting CIB together in those days was interesting and fun and many of the indexing staff participated.

You can see their names on the masthead at: including that of Marge Matthews who was an Assistant Editor and who eventually took over as editor when I stepped down. The ISI artists created the hand drawn cover designs for each issue (see an example at and even cartoons on occasion – it became a tradition since the CIB was edited by a series of ISI staff members over a long period of time.

The most satisfying role that I have played in ACS in general was when I served on the Committee on Nominations and Elections (N&E). N&E is the recipient of complaints about the nominations and elections process and has seriously spearheaded changes over the last decade. I served for six years (2000-2005) and played a role in making the election process more equitable and in making sure that Divisions were being adequately looked at to fill elected positions. The committee is often criticized because its work is confidential. It identifies potential candidates for elected committees (except for N&E, that is done by the Council Policy Committee (CPC)), for ACS Directors and for ACS President-elect. Behind closed doors there is much discussion about the proposed nominees‘ qualifications and the development of a rank-ordered list of names takes place. N&E attempts to ensure that the most qualified people are asked, that diversity is achieved and maintained, and that Divisions and Local Sections are treated equally. Hence, confidentiality is an absolute requirement of the process. I am proud of what the committee has accomplished in getting the ACS Bylaws changed to make the process more equitable and glad that I was able to be a part of that process. CINF is fortunate that Andrea Twiss-Brooks is now representing Division needs on N&E and being a part of the change process. With regard to the various roles I have played for the Division – Chair, Secretary, CIB editor , and Councilor– each had or has its own fulfilling rewards. When I was Secretary the Division won the award for best annual report from a medium-size Division. That was exciting for me and for CINF. There were no report forms to fill out at that time, it was all free form and you could include as much or as little as you wanted. I recollect that our winning report was in a 2‖ binder – and it was a pure marketing tool for CINF (I was at Wharton at the time and I think I let my MBA mindset take over - I wrote it almost as a business report. My own secretary helped and chided me on my verbosity). To this day, when we get together for lunch, that report finds its way into the conversation.

I think that I have had a chance to most effectively serve the Division in my role as Councilor over the past seventeen years. My longevity has given me visibility and as a result I have been appointed or elected to committees where I could impact how Divisions were perceived, recognized and rewarded. Most recently I have been asked to participate on a Task Force on the electronic dissemination of meeting content that will have its first meeting on February 2010. Hopefully, that will lead to something for CINF.

SB: This is the first issue of the Bulletin that will be produced only online. What would you like to see in future issues? How could we make it more interesting and relevant to the chemical information community?

BL: I thoroughly enjoy reading your interviews. The personal history is fascinating. I would like to see articles on information industry trends in general as well as how those trends impact the flow of scientific and scholarly communication. This could include articles on information policy and copyright legislation. Perhaps we could include a summary at year-end - sort of a look back at the highlights of the year with regards to technology changes, mergers and acquisitions, new products, meeting highlights, etc. Not the Division annual report, (although it could include a link to the report) – I mean a much more global, industry wide overview with links to relevant sites. Specific initiatives or technologies discussed at the ACS meetings could be summarized with links to podcasts. The electronic format opens up a lot of possibilities that CINF can pursue. As an aside, and not really related to the CIB, we could use Val Metanomski‘s CINF history as the foundation of a wiki-like history of Chemical Information with links to items from the Chemical Heritage Foundation and other sources. Perhaps pieces of the history could be ―reprinted‖ in CIB and expanded upon using links to relevant sources as an ongoing serial. Or we can highlight the history of specific technologies or companies of interest to CINF members. Best I shut up unless I am willing to contribute!

Eric Scerri

A Philosopher’s View on the Periodic Table of the Elements and Its Significance

Interview with Eric Scerri by Svetla Baykoucheva

Image"Imagine the sight of the snow under a ski chairlift on the first sunny day after a storm, when untracked powder tempts you from below. You know that no matter what, once you hit the snow, it’s going to be a great day. Some runs will be steep and full of bumps, some will be easy cruisers, and some will be tricky routes through trees. But even if you take the occasional wrong turn, most of the day will be wonderfully rewarding."

Lisa Randall (2006) Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe’s Hidden Dimensions, p. 8.

Eric Scerri is originally from Malta. He obtained all his degrees in the UK. His bachelors and masters degrees were in chemistry from the universities of London and Southampton. His PhD was in history and philosophy of science from Kings College, London. He went to the US as a postdoctoral fellow at Caltech fifteen years ago and has remained in the US ever since. For the past 10 years he has been teaching chemistry and philosophy of science at the University of California at Los Angeles. Scerri is one of the founders of the field of philosophy of chemistry as well as the founder and editor of the journal Foundations of Chemistry, now in its eleventh year of publication. Dr. Scerri has written what reviewers have called “the definitive book on the periodic table, ” The Periodic Table: Its Story and Its Significance. He is also the author of two books with Imperial College Press in London. He is currently writing two more books with Oxford University Press. Scerri is also the author of over 100 journal articles in chemistry, chemical education and history and philosophy of science. In recent years he is turning increasingly towards working in the TV and radio media and to presenting his work to the general public.

Scerri is one of the founders of the field of philosophy of chemistry as well as the founder and editor of the journal Foundations of Chemistry, now in its twelfth year of publication. Dr. Scerri has written what reviewers have called ―the definitive book on the periodic table,‖ The Periodic Table: Its Story and Its Significance. He is also the author of two books with Imperial College Press in London. He is currently writing two more books with Oxford University Press.

Scerri is also the author of over 100 journal articles in chemistry, chemical education and history and philosophy of science. In recent years he is turning increasingly towards working in the TV and radio media and to presenting his work to the general public.

Svetla Baykoucheva: In an interview for Nature Chymist, a Nature Chemistry blog, when asked which historical figure you would like to have dinner with, you said this would be Dmitrii Mendeleev ( In your book, out of 10 chapters two are devoted to Mendeleev. What is it about him that has struck you most? If you could really have dinner with him, what questions would you ask him? Eric Scerri: I am struck with the fact that he was so far ahead of the other chemists who groped their way towards the periodic table. I am also amazed by the confidence with which he believed in the periodic law which he formulated and the even greater confidence with which he predicted the existence of new elements. Allow me to quote from his paper which appeared in German in 1871, just two years after his initial periodic table of 1869: ―…we can see, by referring to tables I and II, in which the periodic relations are shown, that many elements are missing, and we can confidently predict their discovery. I am therefore going to describe the properties of several as yet undiscovered elements. In this way I hope to demonstrate in an accurate and perfectly clear manner the adequacy of the law, although confirmation of these proofs is reserved for the future.

I would ask him whether he really had not seen the rudimentary periodic tables of De Chancourtois, Newlands and Lothar Meyer, before publishing his own table, as he later claimed. I would also ask him about his philosophical views on the nature of ‗elements‘ as this has become a much discussed topic within contemporary philosophy of chemistry. Mendeleev certainly had profound views on the issue and referred to them even in the first of the two volumes of the first edition of his famous book. He did this even before formulating the periodic table, which he did while considering how to make a transition to the remaining elements that he wanted to discuss after those in volume one.

Dmitrii Mendeleev
AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives

SB: An excellent book on Mendeleev was written by Michael Gordin (Gordin, M.D. (2004) A Well-ordered Thing: Dmitrii Mendeleev and the Shadow of the Periodic Table. Basic Books, New York). Your book is the most comprehensive work entirely devoted to the periodic table. I can admit that I read it like a novel. How did you do the research for it and what is generally your way of writing? What resources did you use?

ES: Thanks very much for saying so. It is the single most intensive piece of work I have ever done and it involved a fair share of trials and tribulations. The research for the book stretches back for a period of about twenty years to my PhD thesis in history and philosophy of science, which was on the reduction of chemistry to physics. But rather than trying to deal with the whole of chemistry, I decided to concentrate on one very central aspect of chemistry, which embodies so much chemical knowledge and information—the Periodic Table—and to ask how, or to what extent, it has been reduced to physics, in general, and to quantum mechanics, in particular. As for my sources, I would like to think that I have read everything published on the subject, in many cases a number of times. The other ‗source,‘ of inspiration at least, goes back to my childhood and the fact that I have always admired the orderliness and compactness of the periodic table, the feeling that all of chemistry was somehow contained in this elegant chart.

SB: I read somewhere that you had been involved with some TV productions. What did you do for TV and what are the projects you have been working on now? What is in your future plans?

ES: I have been a consultant and interviewee in a couple of series on the periodic table, one in the UK and the other one in the US, both of which are yet to air. I was also part of a one-hour radio show made by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, CBC, called ―The Music of Matter.‖ It consisted of extended interviews with John Emsley, Oliver Sacks and with me on the subject of the periodic table. I am very interested in getting more involved in this kind of work, perhaps even on the production side, and I invite anyone reading this interview to get in touch with offers or suggestions. As you know there is far too little on chemistry in popular science TV and radio, and of course not enough popular science books centered on chemistry. I hope to do my bit to redress this imbalance as much as possible.

SB: You are evidently very interested in predictions in chemistry, in general, and in the development of the periodic system, in particular. You have a sub-chapter in your book, ―Mendeleev’s less successful predictions.‖ How do philosophers of science view the failed predictions of scientists, and how are such predictions treated, especially if they have never been published? Should they be counted as failures?

ES: Thank you for raising the issue of predictions because I want to clear the record on this. When an article describing my book appeared in the New York Times, the author claimed that I was trying to minimize the achievements of Mendeleev and was claiming that many others had discovered the periodic table before him, especially the Frenchman De Chancourtois. In fact I have the utmost respect for Mendeleev‘s work, although a historian is obliged to lay-out the record of discoveries as he sees it. My reason for devoting a great deal of attention to predictions is because of a long-standing debate in the philosophy of science which seeks to establish whether scientific theories and developments are accepted mainly because of successful novel predictions or perhaps for their successful accommodations of already known facts.

One of the pioneers in this question has been Professor Stephen Brush who you may have known before he recently retired from the University of Maryland at College Park. Brush argued that in a number of key theories in physics, for example, it was successful accommodation of already known phenomena that was in fact more decisive in the acceptance of the theories in question. For example, he and others have claimed that Einstein‘s theory of general relativity was primarily accepted for correctly explaining the long-known advance of the perihelion of the planet Mercury and not for the dramatic and successful prediction that Einstein made of the bending of starlight by massive gravitational objects. But when it came to chemistry, Brush appeared to vacillate and claimed that this was one case in which successful predictions had indeed been more decisive than accommodation of already known elements in the acceptance of the periodic table. I wrote a long paper with the philosopher John Worrall in which we argued that accommodation of elements by Mendeleev‘s table may also have been more decisive, or at least as decisive, as the predictions in the acceptance of the periodic system. This is why we examined his predictions so closely, including his failed predictions. The point is that if predictions had been regarded as being so decisive, one would expect the failed predictions would have counted against the acceptance of the periodic table. But there were several failed predictions and yet the system was accepted, perhaps because the outcome of predictions was not all that crucial contrary to the popular accounts.

SB: With my previous question, I wanted to find out whether, when talking about Mendeleev’s unsuccessful predictions in your book and later in one of your papers (Scerri, E. R. (2008) The past and future of the periodic table. American Scientist 96 (1), 52-58), you have counted as his failures even predictions that had not been published officially. Making predictions and having hypotheses is what scientists do all the time. This is how science is done—speculate and prove whether you were right. Should such failed predictions, if they have not been published officially, be taken into account when evaluating how successful a scientist has been in making predictions?

ES: I agree with you that unpublished predictions should not count in the assessment of a scientist‘s work. When I claimed in my book that nine out of eighteen predictions made by Mendeleev had been successful, I was referring to predictions that he actually published at one time or another. This includes his prediction of two elements that he believed to be lighter than hydrogen and his prediction of ether as an element, which he made in 1905 a couple of years before he passed away. Some authors regard these predictions as the speculative outpourings of an elderly and established scientist with nothing to lose and I suppose one must agree with that, although these ideas appear to have been well thought-out and appeared in a short-book form.

SB: Has Mendeleev betrayed some of his predictions that he based on the atomic weight of the elements for the purpose of accommodating their chemistry, and why did he do that (for example, putting tellurium (Te) before iodine (I)?

ES: This is another very subtle and interesting issue. You are referring to the pair-reversals. In the case of Te and I, adhering to the then known atomic weights should have placed these elements in chemically incorrect groups since iodine had a lower atomic weight. Mendeleev, and incidentally, Newlands and Odling before him, all placed Te before I because of the chemical similarities which each of these elements had shown with the oxygen group and the halogens respectively. This much is true, but Mendeleev did not really betray his belief that the ordering principle lays in using atomic weight. Instead, he repeatedly insisted that either the weight of tellurium or that of iodine had been incorrectly determined. Contrary to the popular account, we might say he did not simply put more emphasis on chemical properties, but instead maintained that the atomic weight ordering was the exceptionless criterion for ordering the elements. But throughout his life, the repeated attempts that he made to establish that Te has a lower atomic weight have failed. Of course the correct ordering principle is atomic number, and not weight, but this would only emerge in the second decade of the 20th century following the work of van den Broek and Moseley.

SB: The main theme in your book is the relationship between chemistry and physics and to what extent quantum mechanics explains the periodic system of elements. From the point of view of a philosopher of chemistry, can chemistry be reduced to physics?

ES: First let me say that I do not try to answer the ‗in principle‘ question of whether chemistry can be reduced to quantum mechanics. My emphasis has always been on the extent to which chemistry has in fact been reduced to quantum mechanics. After all, who really knows what is possible in principle or what might be possible via a future development in quantum mechanics? On the other hand, one can carefully examine whether present day quantum mechanics does a good job of explaining in a more fundamental manner chemical phenomena such as perhaps the form of the periodic table. I have claimed that although quantum mechanics gives a perfectly good ab initio explanation of the lengths of periods of elements it does not fully explain the precise order of shell filling which is summarized by the n + l or Madelung rule which is familiar to anyone who has studied college or even high school chemistry. And let me repeat—I am not claiming that such an explanation is not possible in principle but just that nobody has yet succeeded in deriving this rule from the general principles of quantum mechanics.

SB: How do scientists working in individual disciplines relate to and treat each other? Are there disciplines that are considered superior to other disciplines? When I was in college, I remember that physical chemists were kind of elite. I can admit that this might have played a role for me choosing to do a Master’s degree in physical chemistry. I later spent most of my scientific career working in areas closer to organic chemistry (lipids and fatty acids).

ES: Yes I agree with you, physical chemists and even more so theoretical chemists consider themselves somehow superior to other specialists within chemistry. And theoretical physicists consider themselves even more superior. Some of this one-upmanship is perhaps inevitable since the more theoretical the discipline, or the more one moves towards physics, the more the scientist is operating at a more fundamental level. But more fundamental in the literal sense should not be mistaken to mean superior since work at the less fundamental levels is just as essential and in most cases remains indispensable. This is the paradox of reduction in all the sciences. We gain knowledge of larger objects in terms of their microscopic components and the way they are organized and yet the detailed knowledge must still be acquired by painstaking work at each of the appropriate levels in the scientific hierarchy.

SB: Another major theme that runs through your book concerns the nature of the element. This question has puzzled Mendeleev and has significantly influenced his views. I would like to quote something from your book: ―endeleev held a dual view on the nature of elements, where they could be regarded as unobservable basic substances and also as Lavoisier’s simple substances at the same time. Mendeleev thus acknowledged one of the central mysteries running throughout the long history of chemistry, which is the question of how, if at all, the elements survive in the compounds they form when they are combined together. For example, how can it be claimed that a poisonous gray metal like sodium is still present when it combines with a green poisonous gas chlorine, given that the compound formed, sodium chloride, or common table salt, is white and not only nonpoisonous but also essential for life?‖How does the philosophy of chemistry deal with this question and what diverging views exist in this area?

ES: There is a sense in which the question you are alluding to now lies at the very heart of philosophy of chemistry. Let me use a well-worn example. When iron filings are mixed with sulfur, we obtain a physical mixture of two elements. But when sodium reacts with chlorine, we obtain a compound in which the component elements are not as easily recovered and also seem to have been radically transformed. To me the chemical change is far more magical and far more mysterious. Understanding such chemical changes requires its own philosophical approach. Mendeleev and others provided the beginnings of such an approach. We need to regard elements in two senses, or maybe even three senses. First there is the element as a simple substance such as grey sodium. Then there is the sodium, which is combined as in the case of sodium chloride. And thirdly there is what is common to both of these forms of the element. The third option has been called ―he element as a ‗asic substance‘‖, a somewhat unfortunate terminology in view of the unintended reference to acid-base properties. Mendeleev believed that it was this more fundamental, more philosophical sense of the elements that were represented on the periodic table and not the other two senses. This is not so hard to appreciate. For example, the halogens, as simple isolated substances, are rather different and they even display all three states of matter at room temperature. They are not grouped together because of their similarities as simple substances. On the other hand, their compounds with sodium, for instance, are all very similar. The properties of the combined elements appear to be more decisive. Philosophers of chemistry are currently trying to clarify these distinctions, especially given the centrality of the concept of ‗lement‘ in chemistry. There is a good deal of disagreement with some wanting to regard the most fundamental sense of element as metaphysical, others—as merely abstract— and so on.

SB: Although it took you seven years to finish this book, it has been on your mind for 20 years. Why is the periodic table philosophically important?

ES: Quite simply put the periodic table embodies the heart of chemistry and the relationships among the elements. It is by far the biggest idea in modern chemistry, equaled only by the notion of chemical bonding to which it is of course strongly related. The nature of the periodic table defies the usual ways in which scientific concepts are classified. It is not a theory or a model but, in a sense, it is just a representation and yet one that is capable of establishing far-reaching correlations. Attempts to explain the periodic table by people like Bohr and Pauli have produced important concepts and have helped to shape quantum mechanics itself. Instead of thinking that quantum mechanics explains the periodic table, I prefer to think of the periodic table as having helped to give birth to quantum mechanics.

SB: The development of the periodic table has involved interplay between theory and experiment. How have the philosophical deliberations of Mendeleev about the nature of the element influenced his predictions?

ES: This brings us back to the philosophical understanding of the concept of an ‗element‘. In my book, and some articles, I have claimed that Mendeleev‘s willingness to go beyond the facts, to make predictions and to correct the atomic weights of many elements, was based on his belief that the periodic system was primarily a classification of the elements in their more abstract and fundamental sense. Had he been more tied to the properties of the elements as simple substances, I don‘t believe that he would have been able to go beyond the known facts on so many occasions. He had a deeper appreciation of the nature of the elements than his competitors and, like all truly great scientists, he was as much a philosopher as a technical scientist.

SB: As you have mentioned in a recent article, through the years, many people have tried to create their own models of the periodic table. This somehow reminds me of a situation in France, where even today there are people who are proposing ideas about how to calculate the face of the circle. They send their ideas to the French Academy of Sciences, where each new proposal is registered (in the Archives of the Academy). You also have proposed your own version of the periodic table (Fig. 1), in which you have put H in the first column/group, together with the halogens. Did you do it this way because you consider the atomic weight to be more important than the chemical properties of the elements?

ES: Actually my proposal was based first of all on atomic numbers and secondly on the desire to create new atomic number triads. Triads using atomic weights provided what I have called the first hint that there were numerical regularities among the elements. Since atomic number is now known to be a superior ordering principle, it is worthwhile considering atomic number triads. If we place hydrogen above fluorine and chlorine, we obtain a new perfect atomic number triad in the sense that the atomic number of the middle element of these three, fluorine (9), is the exact average of the atomic numbers of hydrogen (1) added to that of chlorine (17). If hydrogen is left among the alkali metals where it most usually placed we have nowhere near to an atomic number triad H (1), Li (3) and Na (11). But I still have work to do in convincing the scientific community that atomic number triads are fundamental and not merely a form of numerology. I am in the process of publishing an article in which I argue that electronic structure is governed by the nucleus, which if true would strengthen the notion that atomic numbers and relations among them have a fundamental role to play in the question of the placement of elements in the periodic table.

SB: What are the hot areas of research in the philosophy of chemistry today?

ES: The question of reduction is still important as are the notions of natural kinds. Some of my colleagues are interested in whether chemical bonding should be regarded structurally or in a more realistic sense. There is also work being conducted on oscillating reactions, the philosophy of organic chemistry and of biochemistry. You can get some better idea by consulting copies of the journal Foundations of Chemistry which is now in its twelfth year of publication.



Figure 1. This version of Eric Scerri‘s Periodic Table places H with the halogens. The table was featured in an article in American Scientist (Scerri, E.R. The past and future of the periodic table. American Scientist 96(1), 2008, 52-58.

SB: In one of your papers you pondered on whether ―our reliance on the two-dimensional forms of the periodic table is due to the predominance, until recently, of the two-dimensional textbook page surface and the two-dimensional nature of the walls of lecture theaters?‖ And you were wondering whether, ―with the development of the new technologies, Mendeleev’s famous icon might be transformed into something that even he might not recognize if he were here to see it? In her brilliantly written book, ―Warped passages: Unraveling the mysteries of the Universe’s hidden dimensions, the theoretical physicist Lisa Randal talks about the possible existence of parallel universes, warped geometry, and an extra-dimensional world. How do you see the future development of the periodic table and the possible role that philosophy could play in it?

ES: I think that the most interesting question is whether it makes any sense to seek an optimal periodic table or whether most representations are ultimately just as worthwhile. I am a realist about chemical periodicity, that is to say I believe that the approximate recurrence of the elements after certain intervals is an objective fact of nature. It is not a convention that we impose on nature. Consequently, there is no question in my mind that some periodic tables are better than others and indeed that it is worth seeking an optimal table. I am also a little puzzled that many chemists, who usually espouse realist views on most scientific matters, often deny the notion of one best table. Let me stress that I don't mean what shape the periodic table should be presented in whether it be rectangular, circular, elliptical or pyramidal. I am referring to differences concerning the placement of certain troublesome elements such as hydrogen, helium. I cannot agree with textbook authors and periodic table designers who show hydrogen, or even hydrogen coupled with helium, alone hovering above the main body of the periodic table. This amounts to the claim that these two elements are not subject to the periodic law which I find distasteful. There is also a long-standing debate about whether group 3 should consist of Sc, Y, La, Ac or perhaps Sc, Y, Lu, Lr. I am in favor of the latter arrangement incidentally, again because of atomic number triads. Some of these topics do not involve technical scientific information but are to some extent meta-scientific. This is where philosophy of chemistry can play an active role. Thank you for allowing me to voice my views on my favorite topic.


Eric Scerri teaches chemistry as well as history & philosophy of science at UCLA ( Books written by Scerri can be found at: