The Etymology of Chemical Names: Tradition and Convenience vs. Rationality in Chemical Nomenclature

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Evan Hepler-Smith

Assistant Professor of History

Evan Hepler-Smith is Assistant Professor of History at Duke University. Evan is a historian of modern science and technology, specializing in the global history of chemistry, computing and information technology, and environmental health.

Evan's book in progress, Compound Words: Chemists, Information, and the Synthetic World, is a transnational history of ideas, infrastructures, and politics behind the molecule-by-molecule conception of what chemicals are, the foundation of present-day chemical innovation, manufacturing, and regulation. The ontology of chemicals-as-molecules arose not just from timeless properties of material substances, but also the contingent structure of information technologies. This way of determining what counts as a chemical (a patentable drug, an environmental hazard) was developed by European chemists in the late nineteenth century, and subsequently adopted and adapted around the world, to mobilize chemical information for the benefit of ideologies, nations, and corporations. Born of capitalist imperatives, organized in print, and entrenched within computer databases, molecules became a taken-for-granted foundation of twentieth-century science, technology, and biomedicine.

Evan is concurrently pursuing two new projects. "Remapping Chemicals" traces life cycles of chemical substances through modes of production, cultures of use, geographies of toxic exposure, and politics of environmental justice. Through comparative histories of such substances as cinchona, indigo, DDT, and per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS), this project aims to shed light on chemical hazards in terms of infrastructures of manufacturing, consumption, information, mobility, and labor. It also aims to draw attention to alternatives (past and present) to these persistent games of "chemical whack-a-mole."

Evan's other new project, "How Molecules Became Digital (And Everything Became Molecules)" explores how the rise of scientific computing has been intertwined with a shift toward molecular approaches across a wide swath of science, technology, medicine, and governance--from predictive toxicology to expert systems AI to social network analysis. By bringing chemical databases from the “back end” into the foreground, this project will show how molecularization and computerization reinforced each other and shaped science and society since the mid-twentieth century.

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