As part of the Data Then and Now seminar series, Evan Hepler-Smith from Duke University will be presenting a lecture called “Molecular bureaucracy: A chemical history of data.” Please join us for Evan’s lecture on February 12th, 2020 from 4:00-5:00 PM in the Seminar Room of the WRF Data Science Studio.
Data, information, and bureaucracy have intimately shaped the development of modern chemistry, that most material of human enterprises. Reciprocally, chemistry has fostered significant general methods for storing and analyzing data. This surprising entanglement suggests that we revisit the conventional wisdom that data is immaterial and chemicals entirely material. Starting from current multi-disciplinary scholarship on the materiality, environmental history, and historical epistemology and ontology of data regimes, this talk traces how technologies and cultures of data fostered the development of modern chemistry, the sprawling synthetic chemicals industry, and the project of global governance of toxic substances, from the late 19th century through the present day. I will begin with an 1892 conference in Geneva at which three dozen chemists defined what counts as a chemical substance and how to put tens of thousands of them into a determinate order. This method of organizing chemical data was worked out according to the constraints and affordances of print. Firmly entrenched by the 1950s as the information infrastructure of the vital and fast-growing synthetic chemicals sector, this print-based data regime got transferred essentially unchanged onto digital electronic computers, structuring databases which today address about 200 million different material chemicals (or 200 billion virtual ones). Some serious *bugs* of present-day chemicals governance, including the frustrating pattern of “toxic chemical whack-a-mole,” were originally *features* of hundred-volume print bibliographies. Data structures by no means constrain the properties of the material world, but they have played a central role in guiding decisions about industrial synthesis that have remade it, as well as regulators’ attempts to control its hazards. I will also touch on dividends of chemical representation and analysis in areas such as network analysis, combinatorics, information retrieval, and artificial intelligence—data science as applied chemistry, so to speak.
The Data Then and Now seminar series explores the social and organizational history of data and data practices in order to better understand the current data-intensive moment through its antecedents and continuities. It features invited speakers from across the country and around the world. For more information, please visit the Data Then and Now web page.