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Drawing Disciplines Together

The Function of the Belousov-Zhabotinsky
Reaction in the Formation of Nonlinear Dynamics as an Interdisciplinary
Research Field, as Analysed in its Representations in Textbooks,
Workshop Proceedings and Popular Accounts from 1970 to 1995

Masterprojekt von Jonathan C. Bauer

In 1950 the Soviet chemist Boris Belousov observed a curious reaction
during his research on biochemical cycles.
Instead of stopping after it reached its equilibrium state, as would be
expected of most chemical reactions, this one seemed to oscillate back
and forth between two states like a clock. In the early 60s the
biophysics graduate student Anatoly Zhabotinsky took up Belousov's work
and found that the reaction was also able to exhibit a spiral pattern.
Zhabotinsky was not alone with his research: other groups in Oregon,
Belgium and the Soviet Union with backgrounds in physiology, theoretical
biology and physical chemistry had taken interest in oscillating
chemical reactions. At the beginning of the 1970s they became a research
topic that drew scientists from different disciplines together.

In the 1970s the interests in the Belousov-Zhabotinsky Reaction met the
interests of theoretical physicists, physical chemists and
mathematicians doing research in processes that seemed to have little to
do with each other: They could be formation of clouds, the rhythm of the
heart beat, or the beams emerging from a laser. Common to these
processes was, that they happened outside thermal equilibrium and/or
were governed by nonlinear equations of motion. This made up part of the
fascination for the scientists: that they could model completely
different phenomena with similar sets of equations sharing the same
mathematical structures and properties. These processes often showed
chaotic behavior, but not seldom in a regular way, or formed patterns
and ordered structures, giving this interdisciplinary field one of its
more famous name: Chaos.

The Belousov-Zhabotinsky Reaction, as it became known, proved to be one
experimental system that could exhibit and put under study a wide range
of these mathematical features that were otherwise hard to observe in a
controlled experimental setting, thus enabling a two-way interaction
between theoretical and experimental development.
In this way the Belousov-Zhabotinsky Reaction, as Konstantin Kiprijanow
points out, became an important element in the development and
consolidation of a theory of nonequilibrium thermodynamics (for which a
Nobel prize in chemistry was awarded to Ilya Prigogine in 1977).

The hypothesis that I want to examine in this master's thesis, is, that
the reaction served several important functions for the creating a
cohesion against the sometimes diverging disciplinal practices and
traditions within the field of Nonlinear Dynamics, while it helped to
create an identity on the in- and outside.

The method I am employing here is the analysis of representations of the
reaction in selected textbooks, workshop proceedings and popular
accounts of scientists of Nonlinear Dynamics from 1970 to 1995,
contrasting them with expressions of disciplinal and/or scientific
identity from Oral History interviews.

  1. Fakultät für Philosophie, Kunst-, Geschichts- und Gesellschaftswissenschaften
  2. Institut für Philosophie