(A20)
Chemical entanglements: exploring ontologies at the atomic level
Location Bowland North Seminar Room 6
Date and Start Time 25 Jul, 2018 at 13:00
Sessions 2

Convenors

  • Emma Cardwell (Glasgow University) email
  • Claire Waterton (Lancaster University) email

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Short abstract

How can we meaningfully engage with the chemical in a material world? This session aims to account for the political, ethical, experiential and performative in chemical entanglements. Papers explore: chemical ontologies; global metabolisms of chemical elements; chemical lives; chemical disruptions.

Long abstract

Chemicals are widely considered to be the 'building blocks' of material reality; the irreducible elements that make up the world. Chemists and philosophers of science, however, have long struggled with the ontological problems presented by the lively, indefinable and intrinsically mutable nature of substance, and the question as to how/if an element (a micro-entity with constant composition) can be individuated, its material structure understood, and its existence explained at all.

Despite the slipperiness of such chemical ontologies, elemental signifiers proliferate in contemporary life: we all know that climate change is an issue caused by carbon; acid rain a problem of sulphur dioxide, nutrient pollution is a nitrogen and phosphorous issue, and ozone depletion is down to compounds of carbon, fluorine and chlorine (CFCs).

In some ways, life has never been more chemical, and to be good cosmopolitical citizens in the Anthropocene, we need to pay heed to the particular scientific artefact of the chemical element and its processes. This may mean we need to think differently: chemicals encompass all processes and matter, from the smallest objects of life, to the scale of the universe. Chemicals react, bond, and form new substances in constant relation with others. Chemicals form human and non-human lifeworlds in spatially uneven and inequitable ways. In this session, we ask what thinking chemically might mean for our understanding of the world. What role do chemical ontologies play in the future of societies, and in the future of the earth?

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

Chemical entanglements in air pollution science and research

Author: Emma Garnett (King's College London) email
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Short abstract

Taking the elemental ambiguity of PM2.5 as its starting point, this paper explores the chemical entanglements of PM2.5 in air pollution research. The author then reflects on the spatial and temporal shaping of exposure by tracing the social and relational chemical life of particles.

Long abstract

This paper explores the chemical entanglements that fine particulate matter (PM2.5) make perceptible in air pollution research. PM2.5 is comprised of particles that are less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter and includes ash and sea-spray as well as emissions from combustion, such as for power generation, domestic heating and vehicle engines. As a heterogeneous pollutant, PM2.5 cannot be individuated or materially defined in any simple way. Further, there is no safe threshold of exposure. What is toxic about PM2.5 is often claimed to be the result of its size rather than chemical composition (fine particles can get trapped deep in the lungs and cause damage. Yet recent studies also reveal the relative toxicities of PM2.5: other forms of difference shape these chemical ontologies, such as local and regional variation, human and atmospheric time and specific emission sources.

Barry (2001) has written that 'air quality' has multiple realities depending on the conditions and circumstances within which it circulates. Taking the elemental ambiguity of PM2.5 as a starting point and drawing on the author's ethnographic work in epidemiological and clinical studies of air pollution, situated material instantiations of PM2.5 will be analysed as 'events' that demonstrate the relational formations of chemical bodies. Considering the social and relational chemical life of particles will enable critical reflection on the spatial and temporal shaping of exposure. Attending to these chemical entanglements instigate new methodological and theoretical tools for understanding and responding to human-non-human lifeworld's and what they demand and oblige of us.

Representation in nineteenth century chemistry

Author: Rachel Dunn (Durham University) email
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Short abstract

This paper will discuss representation in nineteenth century chemistry, focusing on John Dalton (1766-1844) and his work on the atomic theory. It will also briefly explore the tools and models used by some of his contemporaries in demonstrating molecular structure.

Long abstract

In this paper I will highlight the use of representation in nineteenth century chemistry. The focus of the paper will be the visual and kinesthetic nature of John Dalton's chemistry, although I will also identify the tools and models used by some of his contemporaries.

In discussing representation in Dalton's work, I will examine the individual symbols presented in A New System of Chemical Philosophy (1808-1827) and attempt to categorise them according to design. I will then identify the two-dimensional representations of compounds Dalton drew using his individual symbols. In creating these compounds he assumed the simplest possible formulae, e.g. water as a binary compound, OH, rather than, as we now know, H2O. I will examine the ways in which he manipulated the symbols, looking at his spatial arrangements. I will include illustrations of the individual and compound symbols from Dalton's published work and pedagogic aids, such as handbills and posters. Looking at Dalton's three-dimensional teaching models will form the second part of my talk and I will include photographs of his actual models and my own recreations. I will show that visual thinking was apparent in his chemical work and teaching, through the media of his symbols and models.

Final conclusions will demonstrate that Dalton's wooden balls were not unique, but were the forerunners to the atomic models seen in the chemistry classrooms of today.

Biopolitics, or a chemical society

Author: Andrew Barry (University College London) email
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Short abstract

This paper develops two propositions. One is that there has been a surprising neglect of chemistry and chemicals in the social sciences, The second proposition is that despite this neglect, chemistry has come to play a remarkably salient role in social and political life

Long abstract

This paper develops two propositions. One is that there has been a surprising neglect of chemistry and chemicals in the social sciences, despite the burgeoning concern with the idea of the elemental, and the longstanding interest in thermodynamics. This conceptual and empirical neglect is not new. Both anthropologists and geographers have long been preoccupied by the relation between the social, the physical, and the biological, but they have shown much less interest in the relation between the social and the chemical. The second proposition is historical. My contention is that despite this neglect, chemistry has come to play a remarkably salient role in social and political life. On the one hand, the presence, circulation and toxicity of chemicals is increasingly monitored and regulated, by both governments and individuals. On the other hand, the current epoch, the Anthropocene, has come to be defined and understood in biogeochemical terms, and these terms demand an interdisciplinary framework for their interrogation.

Hypermetabolic N: the social life of nitrogen

Author: Emma Cardwell (Glasgow University) email
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Short abstract

Nitrogen makes up the bulk of Earth's atmosphere, but is also a dangerous anthropogenic pollutant. Reactive nitrogen both sustains life by feeding crops, and destroys life as a powerful explosive. It's also completely invisible. How, as a society, can we make sense of this chemical trickster?

Long abstract

Chemicals are ontologically tricky. They are invisible, imperceptible and important; perhaps more than anything else, they depend on the equipment, transcriptions and practices of science to sustain their role in socio-ecological becomings. Chemicals are both too small, at the atomic level, and too big, at the level of their global cycles, for an individual human to experience. Chemicals surprise, they refuse to provide rules. They are characterised by movement and change.

And yet, despite this slipperiness, chemicals hold a key position in the modern constitution: as we all know, climate change is an issue of carbon, the ozone hole of CFCs, and we all must learn to think with our 'chemical footprints' to be good ecological citizens. This discussion explores how exactly we do this, using a case study of nitrogen. Nitrogen makes up the bulk of Earth's atmosphere, but is also a dangerous anthropogenic pollutant. Reactive nitrogen both sustains life by feeding crops, and destroys life as a powerful explosive. Nitrogen builds, feeds, pollutes, destroys, and a complex network of actors shape its metabolism in the world, from factories to biologists to water treatment plants to atomic illustrations. How, as a cosmopolitical society, do we socialise with nitrogen, and how can we make sense of this chemical trickster?

Nitrogen - too much of a good thing?

Author: Carly Stevens (Lancaster University) email
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Short abstract

Nitrogen is essential for life but it is also a pollutant. Using a combination of scientific evidence of the negative impacts of nitrogen pollution and my experiences of researching this topic I will reflect on our changing relationship with nitrogen and the problems with communicating about it.

Long abstract

Nitrogen is an essential element for life, plants and animals need it to grow. The atmosphere is 80% nitrogen but much of this is unavailable to plants so nitrogen is frequently the factor that limits growth. However, it can also be a pollutant and too much nitrogen can have a detrimental effect on plant communities. This poses an interesting challenge in communicating nitrogen pollution as a problem because it is both good and bad, there is lots of it but there is not enough of it and it is both tangible and intangible.

I will reflect on over fifteen years of scientific research on nitrogen pollution presenting the scientific evidence that nitrogen is a damaging pollutant as well as an essential nutrient. Using the concept of nitrogen footprints I will demonstrate how our relationship with nitrogen has changed over time and how it varies in different parts of the world. Unlike our carbon footprint our relationship with nitrogen is closely linked to what we eat and I will explore the implications of reducing our nitrogen footprint for society. I will also discuss the problem of communicating about nitrogen pollution and raising awareness with the general public.

Doing and re-doing phosphorus relations

Author: Claire Waterton (Lancaster University) email
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Short abstract

This paper traces some contemporary doings and re-doings of the chemical element, phosphorus (or 'P'). I pay especial attention to the indeterminate and ambivalent nature of P connections in two agricultural situations in the UK in order to make spaces for re-considering and re-ordering P relations.

Long abstract

STS research traces how things are done and re-done through practices and heterogeneous relations. Here, I trace some contemporary doings and re-doings of the chemical element, phosphorus. I trace this element because phosphorus matters - in more and less controversial ways - to primary agricultural production and to the quality of the environments in which such production takes place. This is a worldwide mattering: applications of inorganic fertilizers (through the treatment of phosphate rock) have vastly increased the global mobility of phosphorus since the middle of the C19th. Global phosphate fertilizer production has increased 5-fold from 1960 to 2014 (FAO 2017; tonnes of total nutrient production/year). As Smil (2000) writes: 'No other element used in large quantities by modern civilization has such a peculiar fate as P: millions of tonnes of P are taken every year from just a score of places in the Earth's crust in order to be processed and distributed thinly over an area exceeding one billion hectares of the world's cultivated land'. The account I will give in this paper relates, however, to the spaces and places in which P is being done through routine agricultural practices in the UK. These practices have histories and path dependencies but also tensions and possibilities. P threatens ecological boundaries, but is essential for growth. Phosphorus has become an 'ambivalent object' (Widger 2014). I will trace the ambivalent and indeterminate relations of P in two specific agricultural situations in order to make spaces for re-considering and perhaps re-ordering them.

Of indivisible a-toms and nuclear life worlds: an ethnographic framing of socio-chemical transformations in West Cumbria

Author: Petra Tjitske Kalshoven (University of Manchester) email
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Short abstract

Building on my Classics background in Epicurean materialism and on my recent anthropological research on nuclear worlds in West Cumbria, I suggest that ancient perspectives on matter, and how it brings life into vibrant being, may enrich theorising on worlds perceived as chemical meshworks.

Long abstract

Panta rhei kai ouden menei—Heraclitus' aphorism sounds remarkably fresh in a world where mutability is increasingly seen as a given and to some, perhaps, a virtue. Building on my Classics background in Epicurean materialism and on my recent anthropological research on nuclear worlds, I suggest that ancient perspectives on matter, and how it brings life into vibrant being, may enrich theorising on worlds perceived as chemical meshworks. Departing from the etymology of 'a-tom' (that which cannot be cut or divided) and the term's use in Greco-Roman materialist scientific thinking I draw on a renewed interest in 'matter' in the arts and social sciences to discuss fissile controversies. In West Cumbria, where I have recently embarked on an ethnographic project titled 'Holistic decommissioning in the nuclear industry', chemical and social transformations are in lively evidence. I explore how values, worldviews, and their expression in specific (socioeconomic, rhetorical, chemical) terminologies shape West Cumbria's nuclear landscapes amongst a wide variety of stakeholders. This occurs in a context of uncertainty and transformation, where worries about declining opportunities in the nuclear industry compete with hopes for and resistance against new build. My ethnographic focus in this paper will be on the recent re-launch of a public consultation on the siting of a UK geological disposal facility (GDF) for nuclear waste. Once again, the future of fissile matter is expected to fuel heated debate whilst memories of earlier West Cumbrian interest in hosting a GDF, and the politics that allegedly prevented this, are bound to resurface.

Sorting out the particles: following nano-particulates and their mobilities

Authors: Gordon Walker (Lancaster University) email
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Short abstract

Particles ubiquitously circulate and accumulate and are central to the politics of air quality. We follow ongoing developments in the science of particulate toxicity and mobility focusing on how nano-particles travel to and accumulate in the brain and the complex implications that are emerging.

Long abstract

Particles ubiquitously circulate and accumulate within environments, life-worlds and biologies, and in their diversity of size, material and chemical constitution present varying forms and degrees of potential for harm. Particles have long been central to the politicisation of air quality and human health, and the science of particles has progressively developed an understanding of how source, size and form matters for how particular particulate categories behave, how they are mobile and where within the body they travel to and with what potential consequence. And as regulatory measures have progressively borne down on larger more visible particles, new techniques for revealing the invisibilities of their smaller counterparts have emerged, destabilising previous understandings of how particle size does and doesn't matter why, where and to whom. In this paper, we follow ongoing interactions between the science of particulate mobility and the unequal consequences of inhalation in space and time, focusing in particular on recent developments that show how nano-particulates travel to and accumulate in the brain. This new liminality has the potential to open up new differentiated patterns of vulnerability, political concern and implication, and new sites of contestation and public making

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.