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REVIEWED 28/02/2017



Alan Chalmers

Alan works in the history and philosophy of the physical sciences and has published on seventeenth-century physics and chemistry, nineteenth-century chemistry and nineteenth-century electromagnetic theory and the history of the atom. His more philosophically-oriented research includes symmetry in physics, the nature of laws in physics and Brownian motion.

His current research challenges some received wisdoms about the Scientific Revolution from the seventeenth-century onwards. His main project is funded by an ARC Discovery grant and is entitled ‘The scientific revolution: mechanisation of the world view or the emergence of science as opposed to a world view?’.

A focus on less well-researched aspects of the Scientific Revolution, such as the emergence of chemistry and hydrostatics is intended to illustrate the idea that modern science involved the experimental investigation of intermediate causes (like weight and pressure) rather than the identification of ultimate causes (like atoms).


Alan Chalmers was born in Bristol, England in 1939. He graduated in physics at the University of Bristol in 1961, and received an MSc at the University of Manchester in 1964. He taught physics and the history of science for two years before returning to full-time study at the University of London, where his PhD on the electromagnetic theory of JC Maxwell was granted in 1971.Alan on the Farm

Dr Chalmers first came to Australia in 1971 as a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Sydney, soon progressing to Lecturer and then Senior Lecturer. He moved to the Science faculty in 1986 as Director of the Unit for History and Philosophy of Science, a position he held until his retirement in 1999.

Upon retiring Alan became a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Philosophy at Flinders University (1999 to 2010) and Visiting Fellow in the Center for Philosophy of Science, University of Pittsburgh (2003 to 2004).

Alan is currently Honorary Associate Professor in the Unit for History and Philosophy of Science, University of Sydney.

Alan was elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Humanities in 1997 and in 2003 he was awarded a Centenary Medal by the Australian Government for ‘Services to the Humanities in the area of History and Philosophy of Science’.

Alan is a foundation member of the international committee of &HPS, an organisation concerned with encouraging integration of the history of science and the philosophy of science.


What is This Thing Called Science?

Available in nineteen languages, and now in its fourth edition, What is This Thing Called Science? (QUP 2013) has become an internationally renowned teaching resource in the history and philosophy of science. Each decade Alan Chalmers has drawn on his experience as a teacher and researcher to improve and update the text.

What is This Thing Called Science?The most significant feature of this new, fourth, edition is the addition of an extensive postscript, in which Chalmers uses the results of his recent research into the history of atomism to illustrate and enliven key themes in the philosophy of science. Identifying the qualitative difference between knowledge of atoms as it figures in contemporary science and metaphysical speculations about atoms common in philosophy since the time of Democritus proves to be a highly revealing and instructive way to pinpoint key features of the answer to the question ‘What is this thing called science?'

"Why is a dry-sounding account of the philosophy of science now in its fourth edition, since originally appearing in 1976, and unblushingly proclaimed a classic by Australia's leading academic publisher? One reason is that this book has been internationally hailed as the best available outline of scientific method, that civilisation-defining way of thinking."
"Science and all its imperfections"
Stephen Wilks, The Sydney Morning Herald

"Successive editions have retained and refined its clear, engaging and witty discussions of the most important topics in the field, incorporating the best new research in the field. This latest edition also adds a valuable layer of grounding in the history of science, particularly based on Chalmers' recent extensive research on the history of atomism."
Hasok Chang,
Hans Rausing Professor of History and Philosophy of Science, Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge UK

The Scientist's Atom and the Philosopher's Stone

Drawing on the results of his own scholarly research as well as that of others Alan Chalmers offers a comprehensive history of theories of the atom from Democritus to the twentieth century.

The Scientist's Atom and the Philosopher's Stone: How Science Succeeded and Philosophy Failed to Gain Knowledge of Atoms (Springer 2009) is not history for its own sake. By critically reflecting on the various versions of atomic theories of the past the author is able to grapple with the question of what sets scientific knowledge apart from other kinds of knowledge, philosophical knowledge in particular. The Scientist's Atom and the Philosopher's Stone

Chalmers thereby engages historically with issues concerning the nature and status of scientific knowledge that were dealt with in a more abstract way in his What Is This Thing Called Science?, a book that has been a standard text in philosophy of science for three decades and which is available in nineteen languages.

Speculations about the fundamental structure of matter from Democritus to the seventeenth-century mechanical philosophers and beyond are construed as categorically distinct from atomic theories amenable to experimental investigation and support and as contributing little to the latter from a historical point of view. The thesis will provoke historians and philosophers of science alike and will require a revision of a range of standard views in the history of science and philosophy.

The book is key reading for students and scholars in History and Philosophy of Science and will be instructive for and provide a challenge to philosophers, historians and scientists more generally.




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