© 2015

Explaining Photosynthesis

Models of Biochemical Mechanisms, 1840-1960


Part of the History, Philosophy and Theory of the Life Sciences book series (HPTL, volume 8)

Table of contents

  1. Front Matter
    Pages i-x
  2. Kärin Nickelsen
    Pages 1-13
  3. Kärin Nickelsen
    Pages 15-53
  4. Kärin Nickelsen
    Pages 93-147
  5. Kärin Nickelsen
    Pages 251-309
  6. Back Matter
    Pages 311-349

About this book


Recounting the compelling story of a scientific discovery that took more than a century to complete, this trail-blazing monograph focuses on methodological issues and is the first to delve into this subject. This book charts how the biochemical and biophysical mechanisms of photosynthesis were teased out by succeeding generations of scientists, and the author highlights the reconstruction of the heuristics of modelling the mechanism—analyzed at both individual and collective levels.

Photosynthesis makes for an instructive example. The first tentative ideas were developed by organic chemists around 1840, while by 1960 an elaborate proposal at a molecular level, for both light and dark reactions, was established. The latter is still assumed to be basically correct today. The author makes a persuasive case for a historically informed philosophy of science, especially regarding methodology, and advocates a history of science whose narrative deploys philosophical approaches and categories. She shows how scientists’ attempts to formulate, justify, modify, confirm or criticize their models are best interpreted as series of coordinated research actions, dependent on a network of super- and subordinated epistemic goals, and guided by recurrent heuristic strategies.

With dedicated chapters on key figures such as Otto Warburg, who borrowed epistemic fundamentals from other disciplines to facilitate his own work on photosynthesis, and on more general topics relating to the development of the field after Warburg, this new work is both a philosophical reflection on the nature of scientific enquiry and a detailed history of the processes behind one of science’s most important discoveries.   


Bacterial Photosynthesis Calvin Cycle Chlorophyll Complex Model Emil Warburg Formaldehyde Model Formic Acid Model Franck Herzfeld Hill Chloroplast History Photochemistry History Photosynthesis James Franck Kautsky Effect Organic Acid Model Organic Acid-Formaldehyde Hypothesis Otto Warburg Photosynthetic Unit Robert Emerson Turn of Manometry Water Cleavage Model Willstätter Stoll Franck Model

Authors and affiliations

  1. 1.History of ScienceLMU MunichMunichGermany

About the authors

Kärin Nickelsen is professor of history of science at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich, Germany. Her research interests focus on the field of history and philosophy of the life sciences, with a particular emphasis on methodological issues. She has published on topics ranging from the practices of natural history in the 18th century to the analysis of experimental physiology and biochemistry of the 19th / 20th centuries.

Bibliographic information

  • Book Title Explaining Photosynthesis
  • Book Subtitle Models of Biochemical Mechanisms, 1840-1960
  • Authors Kärin Nickelsen
  • Series Title History, Philosophy and Theory of the Life Sciences
  • Series Abbreviated Title History, Philosophy
  • DOI
  • Copyright Information Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015
  • Publisher Name Springer, Dordrecht
  • eBook Packages Humanities, Social Sciences and Law Philosophy and Religion (R0)
  • Hardcover ISBN 978-94-017-9581-4
  • Softcover ISBN 978-94-024-0682-5
  • eBook ISBN 978-94-017-9582-1
  • Series ISSN 2211-1948
  • Series E-ISSN 2211-1956
  • Edition Number 1
  • Number of Pages X, 349
  • Number of Illustrations 56 b/w illustrations, 6 illustrations in colour
  • Topics Philosophy of Biology
    Plant Biochemistry
    History of Science
  • Buy this book on publisher's site



“Explaining Photosynthesis is an exceptionally clear book, with prose that is supplemented with very helpful diagrams. … examination of the progressive elucidation of the mechanisms of photosynthesis focuses on particular research communities without neglecting to at the same time consider the importance of individual contributions.” (Stéphane Tirard, History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, Vol. 41, June, 2019)

“Kärin … gives a much needed historical and philosophical account of one of the major research projects in modern plant sciences. … Nickelsen boldly attempts to find some bridge between the history of science and the philosophy of science by identifying heuristic strategies based on her historical representation of photosynthesis research. … she provides not only a history of photosynthesis research, but also a critical history that seeks to extract more generalizable philosophical and sociological lessons from the subject.” (Andre M. Hahn, Philosophy & Theory in Biology, Vol. 18, 2016)