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Science meets Philosophy: Interview with Vincenzo Balzani

We talk to a scientist about their work and the impact of philosophy within their field. In this issue, we talk to Vincenzo Balzani, emeritus professor of Chemistry at the University of Bologna.

by Raffaella Campaner

1. You are mostly renowned for your pioneering work on molecular devices and machines. Could you tell us what this research is about, and what its most innovative features are?

A device is something invented and constructed for a special purpose and a machine is any combination of mechanisms for utilizing, modifying, applying or transmitting energy, whether simple or complex. Generally speaking, devices and machines are assemblies of components designed to achieve a specific function. Each component of the assembly performs a simple act, while the entire assembly performs a more complex, useful function, characteristic of that particular device or machine. For example, the function performed by a hairdryer (production of hot wind) is the result of acts performed by a switch, a heater, and a fan, suitably connected by electric wires and assembled in an appropriate framework. The macroscopic concepts of a device and a machine can be extended to the molecular level. Molecules are “objects” of nanometer (10^-9 m) dimension. A molecular device can be defined as an assembly of a discrete number of molecular components designed to achieve a specific function. Each molecular component performs a single act, while the entire supramolecular assembly performs a more complex function, which results from the cooperation of the various components. A molecular machine is a particular type of device in which the (molecular) component parts can display changes in their relative positions as a result of some external stimulus. Molecular-level devices and machines operate via electronic and/or nuclear rearrangements and, like macroscopic devices and machines, they need energy to operate and signals to communicate with the operator. The extension of the concepts of a device and a machine to the molecular level is of interest not only for basic research, but also for the growth of nanoscience and the development of nanotechnology.

2. What were the most serious challenges you and your group met, in theoretical and practical terms, in pursuing such research?

The field of molecular devices and machines covers a broad range of chemical and physical branches. In such cases, success can only be the result of collaboration with specialists of the various sectors, coordinated by someone with large views.  I had the invaluable privilege of working in a group made of highly motivated, reliable, and friendly colleagues and co-workers. Most of the praise for my achievements goes to them. Particularly important have also been, year after year, the exchange of ideas and profitable collaborations with outstanding scientists all over the world. In practical terms, in Bologna we did not have money to buy the most recent scientific instruments. Therefore, we were forced to collaborate with other groups.

As mentioned above, molecular devices and machines, like those of the macroscopic world, need energy to operate. Our photochemical background suggested to us that the most convenient energy source to make molecular machines work is light. Following this idea, we have constructed and investigated a variety of light-powered artificial molecular-level devices and machines. A further advantage offered by light is that, in addition to supplying energy, it can also be used to “read” the state of the system and thus to control and monitor its functions.

3. What do you see as the most pressing challenges photochemistry and photophysics are called to address in the close future? And what are their most relevant promises? 

Photochemistry and photophysics are natural phenomena as old as the world. Our life depends on photosynthesis, a natural photochemical and photophysical process. We get information about the surrounding space by photochemical and photophysical processes that occur in our eyes. 

We are moving toward a future in which energy and information will be the dominant features of civilization. We will be forced to exploit sunlight as our ultimate energy source, converting it into useful energy forms by photochemical and photophysical processes. We will continue to miniaturize devices for information and communication technology down to the molecular level and we will use, more and more, light signals to transfer, store, and retrieve information. More specifically, there are important relationships between light and life besides the already mentioned phenomenon of vision: damages caused by exposure to UV light, benefits deriving from light-based therapeutic processes, photocatalysis for environmental protection, fluorescence for labeling biomolecules, and bioluminescence processes. Other applications of photochemistry and photophysics include: photochromic compounds, luminescence sensors (comprising, e.g., their use in fields as diverse as wind tunnel, thermometers, measuring blood analytes, detecting explosives and warfare chemical agents), optical brighteners, atmospheric photochemistry, solar cells, electrochemiluminescent materials, polymers photodegradation, and photolytography. 

4. What role have the humanities, and philosophy in particular, played in your work as a scientist?

I believe that the humanities, and particularly philosophy and ethics, are very important for a scientist. In our book Molecular Devices and Machines. Concepts and Perspectives for the Nanoworld, VCH-Wiley, Weinheim, 2008 (with A. Credi and M. Venturi), after having discussed the scientific aspects of this topic in 16 chapters, we decided to add another chapter, the 17th one, entitled The role of Science in Our Time. In a short introduction section we explained why we decided to add that chapter: “This book is dealing with science, mostly with basic science; therefore, it could (some readers will say it should) have ended with the previous chapter. But, nowadays, can science be treated as a separate, neutral, and aseptic item? Can a scientist ignore the problems of the human society and isolate himself in an ivory tower? We believe not. We believe that there is a great need to debate the role of science and scientists in our society, and that a scientific book offers an opportunity that should not be missed concerning this problem”. In the following sections of chapter 17 we discussed topics that are rarely discussed in scientific books, such as: Science Will Never End; A Fragile World; An Unsustainable Growth; An Unequal World; The Role of Scientists

I believe that responsible scientists, while creating, with the greatest moral care, new science and technology, should also play an important role as authoritative, informed, and concerned citizens of the planet Earth. We need scientists with a sound cultural background, well aware of the human condition. Scientists concerned about the world in which we live and the society that we are going to construct. Scientists capable of producing first class science, but also engaged in helping to change what is wrong in the social and political organization of our nations and of the entire world. Scientists with the desire to reach beyond the confines of their laboratories and help to make the world a better place. We need scientists speaking up with decision-makers and politicians on the key issues of our planet: the irresponsible depletion of resources, the reckless increase of pollution, the intolerable and ever increasing disparity between the rich and the poor, and the foolish idea of using war as a means to solve political controversies. We need scientists capable of teaching their students not only to make science, but also to distinguish what’s worth making with science.

Some scientists will not agree with this position. Standing up for “real science”, they will claim that scientists should be disengaged from social and political issues. They deny legitimacy to make suggestions, offer advises, and particularly to express opinions on social and political issues. But this means to deny the responsibility that comes from knowledge and from the privileges that scientists enjoy in our societies.

5. Has philosophy of science contributed to clarify any methodological or conceptual issue you have faced, and, more in general, which role do you think philosophy of science should have in interacting with the sciences?

I believe that philosophy can help us also asking questions “from the outside” on the meaning of what we are doing. 

6. Your research has involved the close interaction of chemistry, physics and engineering. What’s your view on interdisciplinary work – both with regard to actual aspects in everyday scientific practice and to institutional organization and management of research work? 

As mentioned above (point 1), I have always worked within a research team. 

We are no longer in the old days when science could be done just for fun and scientists could live in an ivory tower. The same is true for politicians and decision makers. I do believe that living and working alone in a fragile and complex world is neither rewarding nor useful.

7. In the last few years you have been much committed to scientific dissemination. What’s your view on the responsibility of scientists, and of philosophers, in pursuing sustainable scientific activity and in supporting democratic science? 

I believe that responsible scientists, while creating, with the greatest moral care, new science and technology, should also play an important role as authoritative, informed, and concerned citizens of the planet Earth. I fully agree with Richard R. Ernst (Nobel Prize for Chemistry, 1991), “When we set out, by our research activity in the laboratory, to incrementally influence the course of history, we are also requested to contemplate the desired long term global development. Who else, if not the scientists, is responsible for setting guidelines for defining progress and for protecting the interests of future generations?

8. Do you believe philosophy of science might/should play any role in scientific education, and why?

Yes, philosophy of science and history of science should be included in science curricula at universities. Chemists (as well as engineers, physicists, etc.) must be able to challenge what is taken from granted and must continuously ask themselves what is the meaning as well the possible consequences of what they are doing. Philosophy helps to make our work more creative and to keep open the windows of our labs and to look what happens in our town, in our nation and in the entire world.

Profile: Vincenzo Balzani

Vincenzo Balzani, member of the Accademia dei Lincei, is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at the University of Bologna. He is the author of about 500 publications in international journals. For his scientific activity he received several acknowledgements, including degrees "Honoris Causa" at the Universities of Fribourg (CH) and Shanghai (China), awards from the Italian, British, German and French chemical societies, and the Italgas Prize for Research and Innovation. In 2013 he was the recipient of the Nature Award for Mentoring in Science.

His studies deal with chemical reactions caused by light, artificial photosynthesis and the development of molecular devices and machines. His scientific research is combined with an intense divulgation activity on the relationship between science and society, and between science and peace, with particular reference to the themes of energy and resources. He is the author of several books, including: Supramolecular Photochemistry, Horwood, Chichester, 1991 (with F. Scandola); Molecular Devices and Machines. A Journey into the Nano World, Wiley-VCH, Weinheim, 2003 (with A. Credi and M. Venturi), translated in Chinese and Japanese;  Molecular Devices and Machines. Concepts and Perspectives for the Nanoworld, VCH-Wiley, Weinheim, 2008 (with A. Credi and M. Venturi), translated in Chinese; Energy for a Sustainable World – From the Oil Age to a Sun-Powered Future, Wiley-VCH, 2011 (with N. Armaroli); Photochemistry and Photophysics: Concepts, Research, Applications, Wiley-VCH, 2014 (with P. Ceroni and A. Juris). Reading and Writing the Book of Nature, Royal Society of Chemistry, 2015 (with M. Venturi).

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