CITP Luncheon Speaker Series:
Evan Hepler-Smith – Thinking Backwards:
Artificial Intelligence and the Making of a Human Scientific Method

CITP Luncheon Series

Date: Tuesday, November 17, 2015
Location: 306 Sherrerd Hall
Streaming Live:

Food and discussion begin at 12:30 pm. Open to current Princeton faculty, staff, and students. Open to members of the public by invitation only. Please contact Laura Cummings-Abdo at if you are interested in attending a particular lunch.

What difference does the use of computers make for the quintessentially human enterprise of science? The question is as broad as the sciences themselves, with stakes that run the gamut from the abstract (epistemology) to the concrete (funding decisions).

In this talk, Hepler-Smith will tell the story of the development of a particular scientific method, called “retrosynthetic analysis,” that sheds light on this question from a surprising angle. Retrosynthetic analysis, a principal method for planning chemical syntheses, was developed for and through an effort to make this cognitive task tractable for computer automation. Yet the method has come to be employed primarily by people, not machines. This story presents a new perspective on the role of computing in the development of recent science.


Evan Hepler-Smith is a doctoral candidate and 2014-15 Porter Ogden Jacobus Fellow in Princeton’s Program in History of Science. His research focuses on the history of the chemical sciences, scientific data and information systems, and scientific internationalism. For more details, see