Evan Hepler-Smith (Harvard), “Transition States: Compressing Molecules across Time and Media”


[(I) Max Moritz Richter, “Ein Beitrag Zur Nomenclatur,” Berichte der deutschen chemischen Gesellschaft 29, no. 1 (1896): 586–608, on 602; (II) Calvin N. Mooers, “Ciphering Structural Formulas – the Zatopleg System,” Zator Technical Bulletin, no. 59 (1951), 4; (III) D. J. Gluck, “A Chemical Structure Storage and Search System Developed at Du Pont,” Journal of Chemical Documentation 5, no. 1 (February 1, 1965): 43–51, on 44, 47, doi:10.1021/c160016a008.]

These are three bad ways of naming chemicals.

Let’s back up a step. Systematic chemical nomenclature is an exercise in compression. Two-dimensional molecular diagrams are the “iconic vernacular” of chemistry (writes chemist-essayist Roald Hoffmann). Rules for systematic naming and notation are a mechanism for compressing *lots and lots* of two-dimensional molecular diagrams into one-dimensional strings. Unlike the diagrams, these strings can be efficiently written, ordered, and located in very, very long lists. Nomenclature rules are also a mechanism for decompressing those one-dimensional strings to form two-dimensional diagrams.

Image I is a bad way of naming chemicals for use in print.

Image II is a bad way of naming chemicals for use on punched cards.

Image III is a bad way of naming chemicals for use on computers.

The authors behind I and II advanced each bad way of naming chemicals as an exemplum malum. By showing the ill consequences of hewing to a regulative ideal of compression – the approach to systematic nomenclature that I have just outlined – they advanced arguments for tackling the problem through alternative approaches better suited to the affordances of their respective media. The third bad way of naming chemicals was a stepping stone to a really, really good way of naming chemicals (in the opinion of the authors and their collaborators) – one that both fulfilled the regulative ideal and cleaved it in two, making compression and decompression contingent on access to a particular, privately-held technology.

My talk will address the accretion of assumptions attached to particular media in the history of chemical information management. I’ll also address the genesis and role of the ever-retreating regulative ideal of unique, unambiguous chemicals names in this history.