2013 Winner

Is Water H2O?
Evidence Realism and Pluralism


Hasok Chang

[Cover] Is Water H2O? Evidence Realism and Pluralism

About the book

This book is an outstanding example of how history and philosophy of science, in a complementary mode, can usefully re-open questions that science itself has come to neglect. Hasok Chang explores one of the simplest scientific assumptions, "water is H2O", and shows how such a basic statement has a complex history, which is deeply intertwined with themes and issues that have a central place in contemporary philosophical debates.

The book is divided in two parts. The first three chapters trace a history of water from the mid-eighteenth century to the late nineteenth century. These are followed by two philosophical chapters that propose a radical reformulation of the debate on scientific realism and advocate the desirability of adopting a pluralist attitude toward science and historiography.

ISBN 978-94-007-3932-1
316 pages · 2012

[Photo] Hasok Chang

About the author

Hasok Chang is the Hans Rausing Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge. Born and raised in South Korea, he completed his PhD at Stanford University in 1993. He worked at University College London between 1995 and 2010, where he was appointed Professor of Philosophy of Science in 2008. He is a co-founder of the Society for Philosophy of Science in Practice, and currently the President of the British Society for the History of Science. Hasok Chang has published extensively on various aspects of the history and philosophy of the physical sciences. His previous book, Inventing Temperature: Measurement and Scientific Progress (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004) received the Lakatos Award in Philosophy of Science (2006).

The 2013 Fernando Gil Prize for Philosophy of Science

The jury awarded the 2013 Fernando Gil prize for philosophy of science to Hasok Chang for his book: Is Water H2O? Evidence, Realism and Pluralism, published by Springer in 2012 in the Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science.

Hasok Chang was born in Seoul, Korea, and carried out his university studies in the United States. In 1989 he completed his undergraduate degree at the California Institute of Technology, specialising in theoretical physics and philosophy. He went on to graduate studies in Stanford University, and was awarded a PhD in 1993 for a dissertation on the philosophy of quantum physics. His supervisors included Nancy Cartwright, John Dupré, Peter Galison and Patrick Suppes. After his PhD he held a postdoctoral research fellowship at Harvard University under the supervision of Gerald Holton. When in the United States, Hasok Chang also got to know Thomas Kuhn, with whom he had many discussions about History and Philosophy of Science. In 1995, Hasok Chang came to England to become a lecturer in University College London. He has recently moved to the University of Cambridge, UK, to become Professor of the History and Philosophy of Science.

The present book is Hasok Chang’s second book in History and Philosophy of Science. His earlier book — Inventing Temperature: Measurement and Scientific Progress was published by Oxford University Press in 2004. In both his books, Hasok Chang closely integrates history and philosophy of science. In the present book, he takes the example of the discovery of the formula H2O for water. The first 3 chapters of the book deal with the history. Chapter 1 is concerned with the chemical revolution, where Lavoisier came to the surprising conclusion that water was a combination of the two gases hydrogen and oxygen. Chapter 2 deals with electrochemistry, and the electrical decomposition of water into its component gases. However, the atomic formula for water proposed by Dalton in 1808 was HO. The question of how this was changed into H2O is dealt with in chapter 3. It was no easy matter since atoms were not observable, and so it was not clear how they could be counted. This completes the historical part of the book. Hasok Chang now uses the material covered to discuss two central issues in the philosophy of science. In chapter 4 he considers the question of realism in science. Here he criticises the standard version of realism, and develops a new version which he calls ‘active realism’. In chapter 5, he takes up the question of pluralism in science, attempting the difficult task of defending a version of pluralism, which does not become the position that ‘anything goes’.

The jury were very impressed by the overall quality of the book. Excellent scholarly research underpins the historical part of the book, and Hasok Chang develops his philosophical theses with clear and rigorous argumentation. The jury were also very impressed by the originality of the book. The historical parts contain much that is novel, particularly in chapters 2 and 3, which deal with episodes in the history of science, which have not been very intensively studied. On the philosophical side, Hasok Chang develops a new theory in each of two fundamental areas of philosophy of science – realism and pluralism. The jury think that his book will be much discussed in the coming years, and become a central text in the history and philosophy of science. They therefore deemed it a worthy winner of the Fernando Gil prize.