Author:Evan Hepler-Smith (Harvard University)
Paper short abstract:
This paper will address two contrasting aspects of ChemDraw, a molecular drawing program widely used by chemists. Through “connection tables” (a digital file format) and “styles” (parameters of visual rhetoric), ChemDraw has supported the Janus-faced visual epistemology of modern chemistry.
Paper long abstract:
This paper will address ChemDraw, a computer program for drawing the molecular diagrams that chemists refer to as "structural formulas" or "structures." For the last two and a half decades, ChemDraw has been the predominant software system that chemists have used to create images of molecular structures for presentations and publication. This paper thus advances the session's objective of investigating software that has reconfigured vision and practice within particular technical domains.
Two contrasting aspects of ChemDraw have supported and articulated the Janus-faced visual epistemology of contemporary chemistry. First, ChemDraw molecular structures are stored as data in "connection tables," digital file formats originally developed by DuPont to standardize chemical data and deskill chemical data processing. Second, ChemDraw molecular structures are rendered as images according to user-defined "styles": parameters that afford fine-grained control over the size, shape, color, labeling, and other aspects of the appearance of these structural formulas. To many chemists, ChemDraw styles are both a personal signature and an expression of sophisticated, contestable scientific arguments.
I will argue that these two features of ChemDraw - connection tables and styles - respectively fit Bruno Latour's account of scientific inscriptions as "immutable mobiles" and David Kaiser's contrasting account of the "dispersion" of different ways of drawing and interpreting a genre of scientific diagram within different communities of practice. "Drawing theories apart" by means of the visual rhetoric of ChemDraw styles entails "drawing things together" at the level of information infrastructures built around connection tables.
Soft Focus: How Software Reshaped Technical Vision and Practice