Compound Words: Chemists, Information, and the Synthetic World

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Compound Words is a history of chemical identity and chemical information. It addresses a curious aporia of modern science: the names given to scientific objects are not supposed to matter, and yet somehow, to the consternation of scientists, they nearly always do. Compound Words explains the genesis and remarkable significance of some of the most abundant, monstrous, studiously ignored denizens of the lexicon of science: the systematic names of organic chemicals. Each such name – say, (5R)-5-[(1S)-1,2-dihydroxyethyl]-3,4-dihydroxy-furan-2(5H)-one – lays out a compound’s chemical structure in precise but incomprehensible detail. For more than a century, names of this sort have structured how data about chemicals are stored, organized, and accessed. Information entrepreneurs built computer systems around digitized versions of these names, creating the billion-dollar business of molecular bookkeeping that supports the global web of researchers and bureaucrats who seek to harness the benefits and control the dangers of synthetic chemicals. On their own, these names are extravagantly tedious, as irritating to chemists as they are baffling to the uninitiated. Only a raving pedant would prefer (5R)-5-[(1S)-1,2-dihydroxyethyl]-3,4-dihydroxy-furan-2(5H)-one to its congenial synonym Vitamin C. Collectively, however, systematic names mark out identity and relationships across the molecular world. They are the default ontology of modern chemistry.

Compound Words argues that systematic chemical names are not simply the transcriptions of chemical structure that most chemists take them to be. Rather, they are tools that were fashioned for the historically specific purpose of ordering chemical compounds in print, a project at the fulcrum of transformations in the intellectual, social, and political order of chemistry. At the heart of this story is the principle that chemical names ought to be consistent, self-classifying expressions of the diagrams known as structural formulas – what I call the systematic ideal. The systematic ideal was forged at the end of the nineteenth century, by chemists who sought to impose order upon the multitudes of synthetic compounds transforming chemistry and commerce. Drawing on archival materials from Britain, France, Germany, Switzerland, and the United States, I show that national agendas and personal relationships shaped these putatively universal, objective names. I demonstrate that chemical editors built enduring modes of molecular order by way of the endless work of compiling sprawling reference texts. These names and publications became vital tools of chemical research and chemical politics alike. Chemists, entrepreneurs, patent examiners, and physicians negotiated their clashing interests in chemicals and pharmaceuticals through disputes over chemical naming. During World War I, Entente chemists singled out reference literature as the secret to Germany’s dominance of chemical science and industry. If chemists today see nomenclature as a mass of mere technicalities, this is because it was purposefully made to appear so. The interwar institution-builders behind the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry framed naming as an apolitical arena for achieving international accord. During the 1950s and 1960s, information scientists relieved chemists of the burden of nomenclature, and nomenclature of the burden of intelligibility, by building the systematic ideal into the foundations of computer-based chemical information. Hidden in plain sight, this century-old conception of chemical identity has governed how scientists grapple with the material world at the molecular level through the present day.