A Tale of Chemical Futures

In 2016, the Royal Society of Chemistry commissioned two science fiction writers to imagine possible chemical futures. These fictions were part of a more general review about the place of chemistry in Britain, and occurred against a background of nervousness about cuts to the research budget. In one of them, published in the Society’s online magazine Chemistry World, John Gilbey “imagines a future without chemistry as we know it.” Gilbey extrapolates from changes in the prominence given to the material side of chemistry and its supersession by techniques of simulation to imagine conditions in which chemical expertise was not available for even basic analytical tasks, and where chemical practices have been preserved only illicitly. Here is an excerpt from his story, Testing Times. The protagonists are faced with the outbreak of a new disease which they cannot analyse. They hear of a facility which may be able to provide the services which they seek, and its owner explains to them the reasons he has maintained chemical practices when these have been abandoned in official and academic settings:

Waking with a start, I saw a set of strip metal gates in front of us emblazoned with a large sign saying ‘Biosecurity: No Access’. Beyond it, low agricultural sheds stood in ranks framed by the green, and possibly toxic, hills of the West Country. We both got out of the car, and I reported our arrival to Emma while Becca made a phone call. Moments later, a scruffy-looking young man came up and unlocked the gate. Becca gave a whoop of recognition, along with a full body hug that left him fighting for breath. ‘John, this is Spike.’ He shook my hand warmly. ‘Any friend of Becca’s is welcome here. Come on, we’re in hut six.’

It was a chicken farm, or looked like one. Hut six was superficially like all the others, but instead of being full of chickens pecking contentedly around on a barn floor it housed a set of facilities unlike anything I’d seen before. We were standing in a glass-walled office, complete with coffee machine and family photos, looking out on a working space about 50 metres long. It was dotted with clusters of machinery and robotics, some of which I recognised from our fabrication plant – but others were custom-built workstations and groups of dramatically hacked old-school analytical instruments.

Spike, an engagingly gangly twenty-something with ginger hair, poured us all coffee then waved an arm gleefully around his empire. ‘How do you like it?’ he asked with a grin. ‘Very impressive,’ I replied. ‘But what exactly do you do here?’ He smiled. ‘We specialise in short run fabrications and testing for the more discerning customer. Stuff for specialists, hobbyists, people looking for custom builds that the big boys won’t touch.’ Recreational drugs, in other words. That certainly explained the security and camouflage, along with the obviously high level of investment. ‘Not just drugs,’ Spike explained, in pained tones. ‘We do a lot of stuff for photographers who still want to use silver-based imaging – it isn’t all strictly illegal.’

Once we had explained the scale of our analysis problem, in gross violation of James’ instructions, Spike looked pensive – then surprised. ‘Are you really telling me that no one else in the UK has the capacity to do this? Damn. Things have got worse than I thought! But, yeah, sure – we’ll help. As long as we get – you know – immunity for the other stuff we do,’ he finished with a smile. ‘How many samples did you say? 10,000? Yeah, we can run that through in under a day if I pull in some favours.’

On Writing About Chemical Legacies

Remarkable interview from Interalia Magazine with the environmental sociologist and writer Rebecca Altman, in which she talks about the craft of writing about legacies of plastic production and pollution.

The single most significant influence [on my writing] was the near dream-like week I spent at an environmental writing workshop with the poet-biologist, Sandra Steingraber, author of Living Downstream, and most recently, the curator of Rachel Carson’s work on toxics for the Library of Congress.

Steingraber had left academia to write about the science of environmental health for the public. It was the first inkling that such a path was possible, maybe even vital. I soaked up everything she had to offer about craft and pacing and tone and emotion. I remember her saying how Carson deployed iambic pentameter when she wanted to make a particular point all the more piercing. Being otherwise untrained, Sandra encouraged me to keep writing by ear and to be influenced by the rhythms and musicality of my early years.

What Steingraber helped me understand about sound, John McPhee helped me understand about shape. How grateful I’ve been for his writing about writing in The New Yorker. One essay in particular, called Structure, ran in 2013, just as I was wrestling with writing about plastics for the first time. How I struggled to organize the complexity and volume of the raw material I’d collected.

McPhee offered the idea that each work of narrative nonfiction has a guiding image that shapes it, that helps carry the piece’s meaning or theme. Structure could do some of the piece’s heavy lifting. Alongside his essay were schematics that charted the various shapes his essays had taken. Straight-line narratives that plodded ahead chronologically. But also stories told in the shape of a river. A U-shaped curve. A looping spiral.

Thanks to McPhee, American Petro-topia, a story about one particular plastics plant, eventually took the shape of a circle, a living plant’s lifecycle—from seed to sprout back around to seed. The Benzene Tree, which I wrote for The Atlantic, drew on the image of a wave to tell the story of the rise and fall of entire classes of industrial chemistries. When writing Time Bombing the Future – a story about fluorine and the forgotten chemical legacy of the Manhattan Project ­– I held onto the image of a bomb. The fuse was set in the opening paragraphs. It doesn’t go off until the end. Only a brief coda is offered to move readers through the aftermath.

I’ve returned to McPhee whenever I get stuck, which is often. I write about chemistry – and so for me, writing is an act of synthesis, too. Things get complicated. My notebooks are filled with McPhee-like sketches of all the possible shapes a story might take.

Biographies of Materials

A two-day conference held at the Maison Française d’Oxford in March 2019.

The focus on the material dimensions of culture is a major distinctive feature of recent anthropological and historical studies. At the same time, materials science and engineering is a booming field of research and development which has virtually no connections with this trend in the humanities, with the exception of paleo-archaeologists and art historians who occasionally collaborate with material scientists.

The overall purpose of this project is to engage historians and anthropologists in a dialogue with material scientists in order to better characterize the hybrid life of materials as natural entities and social or economic agents. This workshop is meant to start a collaborative interdisciplinary research network on humans’ interactions and interdependence with materials, as well as on the economic, societal and environmental impacts of materials studied from different perspectives.

The biographical metaphor is used to emphasize not only the life-stories of materials but also to their individuality and their agency. Additionally it favours narratives of the entanglements of human societies and economies with environmental cycles (depletion of natural resources, pollution), and with longer and shorter term temporalities (geochemical, climatic, seasonal, modes of production, market longevity, etc.)

On the basis of a variety of sample materials, ranging from conventional and archaeological materials to high-tech ‘materials by design’, the workshop will address a number of general issues such as:

• Between exploring the potentials of existing materials and creating new materials by design, what are the politics of materials research?
• To what extent do materials have multiple identities and uses? How do materials remain within or escape from human control?
• What modes of governance of material resources appear significant in historical and contemporary terms? What balances are exhibited between repairing, re-using, recycling, and throwing away, disposability?
• What is the significance of the durability (or lack thereof) of materials?
• Why and to what extent does the provenance of materials matter? What links do they have with particular localities?
• Can a molecule be considered a material? Is it analytically appropriate to extend the notion of individuated materials to the molecular scale and beyond as in nanomaterials?
• What sorts of relations could be drawn?? between materials and objects? What is the meaning and significance of their divergent biographical pathways?
• What are the advantages and limitations of the metaphor of materials’ biographies



9 :30 Welcome coffee
10: 00 Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent and Marie Thébaud-Sorger
Introduction: Historical perspectives

Old & New Materials
11 :00 Hervé Arribart (ESPCI, Paris)
History of glass research: the quest for material’s perfection

11 :30 Michael Bycroft (University of Warwick)
The classification of gems in seventeenth-century France

12 :00 Hasok Chang (Cambridge University)
Chlorine: An Element of Controversy

Society, economy, and sustainability

14 :00 John R.R. Christie (Oxford)
Alum: Temporalities, Modes of Production, Communities.

14 :30 Judith Rainhorn (parisI Panthéon-Sorbonne)
Entangled whites: lead and zinc oxydes between health and market, 19th c.

(Confort break)

15 : 10 Simon Werrett (UCL)
The power of lasting : Thrifty science and bodily maintenance

15:40 Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent (Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne)
Plastics and the culture of disposal

Coffee break

Between Nature and Design (I)

16 :30 Clément Sanchez (Paris, Collège de France):
Hybrid materials: From history to bioinspired strategies

17:00 Frédéric Thibault-Starzyk (MFO)
Zeolites – the Swiss cheese materials: the interest is (mostly) in the voids

17 :30 General discussion

18 :00 Drinks

Between Nature and Design (II)

9 :30 Viviane Quirke (Oxford Brookes University)
Oestrogen and its identities

10 : 00 Matt Paskins (LSE)
Tracing the Careers of Geraniol

10 :30 Coffee break

10 : 45 Derek McCormack (University of Oxford) & Marie Thebaud-Sorger (MFO/CNRS)
Making air matter

11 :15 Ludovic Coupaye (UCL)
Anthropology of Techniques, Anthropologies of Materials: The revealing dimension of technical activities.

TUESDAY 13:30- 15:00
Materials & Archeology

13:30 A.M. Pollard (University of Oxford)
Thinking Beyond Provenance for Archaeological Materials

14 :00 Loïc Bertrand & Étienne Anheim (CNRS & EHESS, Paris)
While studying material evidence of the early metallurgy of copper…

14 : 30 Stephen Johnston (Oxford Museum of History of Sciences)
The strange case of the missing materials: museological traditions and material investigations

15 :00 Wrap-Up and perspectives for future network

Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent, Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne
John Christie, Oxford
Marie Thébaud-Sorger, MFO
Viviane Quirke, Oxford Brookes University
Matt Paskins, LSE,
Stephen Johnston, Museum of the History of Science, Oxford

The Material Turn and the History of Chemistry

A talk by Simon Werrett for the Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry on 23 March 2021, which discusses Materials and Time among other projects.

Recent years have witnessed a “material turn” in the history of science interested in placing instruments, objects, materials and practice at the centre of historical accounts. In many ways the history of chemistry has always been a “material history”, yet the field has not always had the prominent place it deserves in the material turn. In this paper I reflect on several projects I have been involved with where history of chemistry and material histories come together. My work on “Compound Histories” (with Lissa Roberts) and “Thrifty Science” considered how a close engagement with object histories helps reveal broader approaches to materials at different times that shape chemical practices and social order. An ongoing project on “Materials and Time” (with Bernadette Bensaud-Vincent, Marie Thébaud-Sorger and others) examines a surprisingly varied array of temporalities in chemical substances, and raises the issue of collaborations between historians and chemists. Meanwhile discussions in Ambix and the Forum for the History of Chemical Sciences (FoHCS) are exploring the idea of a “Chemical Humanities” that would draw on diverse disciplines to make sense of the social and material world in novel ways. These projects argue for a more integrated appreciation of materials and chemistry, and offer exciting prospects for future research combining both fields.

You can watch the lecture here.

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