Feb 20

Tom Ritchie discusses Shapin, Meccano, and the Hartree Differential Analyser

You have to use what you’ve got; if you don’t have the stuff, you can’t do the thing.


Inspired by this quip from Ben Russell (Curator of Mechanical Engineering at the Science Museum, Kensington), my latest Ph.D. chapter considers the ways in which the stories of the Hartree Differential Analyser have been changed in the Science Museum since it was collected in 1949. This chapter aims to provide an alternative way of understanding how objects change in museums by placing a larger emphasis on the voice of the object than on other internal and external factors (museum politics and cultural change, respectively). Borrowing from material culture literature, which tells us to approach objects as things that can ‘speak’ to an audience, the chapter approaches the Hartree Differential Analyser as a ‘material polyglot’ object – something that speaks a number of different languages to simultaneous audiences – focusing on the physical and instrumental languages of the analyser as indicators of change. The physical language of the Hartree Differential Analyser relates to its physical Meccano form and its changing composition from a three-integrator machine to a single-integrator model after the Second World War. By contrast, the instrumental language of the analyser is more closely linked to its function — initially as a mechanical solution to the process of computation and later to its roles as a representation of differential analysis of Meccano models and analogue computers. The purpose of these assorted micro-histories of the languages of the object has been to highlight the Hartree Differential Analyser as an example both of Ben’s original quip and of the idea that, with these types of (very) close readings, objects reveal new stories and languages.

In the first two sections of my chapter, I tell the story of the Hartree Differential Analyser from its initial collection by the Science Museum in 1949 through to the establishment of the Mathematics and Computing gallery in 1974. By parsing the correspondence and documentation of the object, I demonstrate how the languages of the object were negotiated and changed by museum staff to make the analyser tell the stories that the staff needed at different points in time. The process of the museum changing the languages that the object speaks – even when the languages the museum chooses are incongruent to the actual object itself – can be best understood as a form of ventriloquism. In the same way that a ventriloquist puts a voice in the mouth of his dummy, this chapter demonstrates how the museum has put a number of voices in the mouth of the Hartree Differential Analyser.

In the process of writing this chapter, I read a number of sources on material culture, museums, artefacts, and objects; however, from all of these books and journals, one article in particular stuck out to me: ‘Pump and Circumstance: Robert Boyle’s Literary Technology’, written by Steven Shapin. Concerned primarily with how knowledge is constructed – rather than how an object changes – Shapin’s article discusses how Boyle and other members of the Royal Society utilised three different technologies – material, literary and social – to constitute matters of fact with regards to the science of the Air Pump. Shapin’s approach to telling the story of the Air Pump is similar to the story of the Hartree Differential Analyser I have tried to tell, by breaking the object into different constituent parts and telling the story of each. Borrowing from ‘Pump and Circumstance’, the rest of this blog post will approach the Hartree Differential Analyser in the same way as Shapin does the Air Pump (as a material, literary and, social technology). However, in contrast to Shapin’s article, which separates the three technologies and places an emphasis on the literary technology of the Air Pump, approaching the Hartree Differential Analyser in the same way will highlight how all three of these technologies are intrinsically linked to each other due to the medium of Meccano used to make the machine.

Shapin begins by discussing the material technology of the Air Pump, highlighting how unlike observations of nature, Boyle’s matters of fact were machine-made. His notion of material technology is similar to my chapter’s discussion of the physical languages of the Hartree Differential Analyser, with both approaches highlighting the importance an object’s form has in our understanding of it. Similar to the Air Pump, the Hartree Differential Analyser was an ‘elaborate’ device that was temperamental (difficult to operate). However, unlike the Air Pump, the Hartree Differential Analyser was inexpensive; where the former is considered Big Science, the construction of the analyser from Meccano meant that it cost less than £20 in 1934 to construct the entire machine, compared to over £12,000 for other analysers. Nevertheless, the Hartree Differential Analyser – as a material technology – has permeated and remained a part of the public consciousness because of the cheapness and apparent simplicity of its Meccano pieces, and the contrast these pieces provide to the complex mathematics that the analyser is understood to calculate.

In his article, Shapin also discusses Boyle’s letters, which were published to proselytise the scientific public about the experimental methods of the Air Pump – a type of literary technology. The purpose of these letters was to translate the material technology of his experiments to interest his public: ‘to teach a young gentleman to ‘addict’ themselves to experimental pursuits and, thereby, to multiply both experimental philosophers and experimental facts.’ The Meccano Magazine was a contemporary literary technology equivalent to these letters: a monthly publication that contained ideas for models, competitions, marketing and advertisements, and – similar to Boyle’s letters – stories of exceptional Meccano usage, designed to hook young minds. The Hartree Differential Analyser featured in the June 1934 edition of the magazine in an article titled ‘A Wonderful Meccano Mechanism’. Similar to Boyle’s letters, the magazine served the literary-technological function of relating the experiment to those not present. The article discusses the differential analyser at length, relating descriptions of how the machine worked, what it did, and the results it produced for different types of differential equations. However, in contrast to Boyle’s letters, which relied on these types of descriptions of the Air Pump to relate it to the public at the time, the literary technology of the Meccano magazine had another layer of literary technology, relating to the community that existed in 1934 when the article about the Differential Analyser was published: those who were devoted to Meccano, the self-confessed ‘Meccano boys’. For this community, due to its pre-established trust in the Meccano pieces that were used to build the analyser, the validity of the machine was already implicit. This community perspective is also built in part upon the social technology that Shapin refers to: the conventions natural philosophers employed in dealing with one another and in considering knowledge claims.

The social technology of Boyle’s Air Pump was designed to be an objectifying resource that made the production of knowledge visible. Boyle did this by presenting the Air Pump as part of a collective enterprise with the Royal Society: in effect, ‘it is not I who says this; it is all of us.’ In a similar way, Meccano also represented a collective enterprise of like-minded parents and youngsters, who believed in what Meccano represented: a toy that could teach boys to be engineers. Built up over the previous thirty-three years since the creation of Meccano by Frank Hornby, advertisements and the Meccano Magazine framed Meccano as more than just a toy, but also as a way to achieve self-improvement. By describing it in these almost moralistic terms, Meccano was objectified as something that all boys should pursue. This social technology of Meccano, and therefore the Hartree Differential Analyser, is not surprising considering the links Meccano shares with Samuel Smiles’ Self-Help book from the previous century (although more on this another time!), which encouraged self-improvement as the path to enlightenment. Therefore, in place of Boyle’s dictum, ‘it is not I who says this; it is all of us’, the social technology of the differential analyser can be understood as ‘we all agree about this; because we trust what it is made from’.

Shapin finishes his article reflecting on Ludwig Fleck’s ideas that a group created by the technologies he discusses cultivates ‘a certain exclusiveness both formally and in content’. In turn this leads to a set of special terminologies to answer the question of ‘Who may speak?’ Where Shapin describes the terminology associated with the Air Pump as being removed from ordinary speech, preventing everyone from speaking unless they had a mastery of special linguistic competencies, he also discusses Boyle’s use of the three technologies as a means of involving the wider community in making factual experimental knowledge. Shapin describes how Boyle attempted this by incorporating aspects of ordinary speech and lay techniques of validating knowledge claims to make the language of early Restoration experimental science a public language. Reflecting on the technologies of the Hartree Differential Analyser and the Meccano Magazine, the language of differential analysis was similarly made into a public language, validated by its association with the Meccano brand. In this example of the Hartree Differential Analyser, Meccano acted as a Shibboleth for public understanding and engagement with the object. By describing in great detail how this complicated machine was made from exactly the same trusted pieces as its readers’ cranes, boats, and trucks, the Meccano Magazine – borrowing from Shapin’s and Boyle’s material, literary, and social technologies – made the differential analyser into a matter of fact.


Boas, M., Robert Boyle and Seventeenth-Century Chemistry, Cambridge University Press, 1958.


Boyle, F., ‘A Continuation of New Experiments Physico-Mechanical, touching the Spring and Weight of Air’, in RBW, Vol. III, pp. 175-276, (1669).


Fleck, L., Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact, trans. F. Bradley and T. J. Trenn, eds., Trenn and R.K. Merton (University of Chicago Press, 1979).


Shapin, S., Pump and Circumstance: Robert Boyle’s Literary Technology, Social Studies of Science, Vol. 14 (4) (1984), pp. 481-520.


Sprat, T., History of the Royal Society (London, 1667).


About the Author

Tom Ritchie is a Collaborative Doctoral Partnership PhD Student (Science Museum, Kensington / School of History, University of Kent) and Associate Lecturer (School of History, University of Kent)

You can tweet him @Tom_Ritchie1

Oct 10

Enlightened Princesses – CHOTS away day

By Noah Moxham and Jasmine Kilburn-Toppin

This year’s CHOTS Away Day took us to the Enlightened Princesses exhibition, now at Kensington Palace in London, following its original installation at the Yale Centre for British Art in New Haven. The palace itself made an appropriate setting, since at least one of the titular princesses, Caroline of Ansbach, had lived in it and overseen the transformation of much of its Hyde Park surroundings into something like their present form. (I had only ever glimpsed it from a distance through the park and thought it attractively modest for a royal residence. That must be a misapprehension, since it’s currently the official London accommodation of four different branches of the extended Windsor family.)

An inadvertent tour of the perimeter (we weren’t sure which entrance we were supposed to gather outside) took us past the main gate, obscured by a layer, several feet deep, of twentieth-anniversary memorial tributes to Diana, whose residence it had also been – the first of many opportunities for reflection on the scope of royal myth- and image-making. Our entrance to the eighteenth-century exhibition also took us past a display of Diana’s outfits, and even those of us who consider ourselves immune to sentiment about princesses would have had to admit that we remembered most of them, including several calculated to make you grateful that the 1980s have been over for a long time.

We were lucky to have with us Ben Marsh from the School of History at Kent, a consultant on the exhibition, and one of whose research discoveries was prominently featured in the final room of the show (of which more below), and even luckier to have Joanna Marschner, Senior Curator at Historic Royal Palaces, as a guide, one of the drivers of the exhibition and the editor of its accompanying book. Joanna conjured the world into which Caroline of Ansbach, Augusta of Saxe-Gotha and Charlotte of Mecklenburgh were recruited (the word is brutal but not misplaced), to shore up Britain’s fragile monarchy and to guarantee the Protestant succession.

Joanna Marschner of Historical Royal Palaces (centre) leads the tour. Photograph by Ben Marsh.

It was a strikingly limited brief for these determined and highly ambitious women, and pitched them into a dramatically different environment from their respective German homelands. The princesses had been used to a scene of rather grander and more diverse urban and courtly sociability and entertainment than that which they encountered upon arrival in Britain. The exhibition outlines the roles that these princesses carved out for themselves in British cultural, political, and intellectual life. Ultimately they functioned as patrons and tastemakers, and as vectors for Continental ideas, artists, and fashions.

The range of their activities was vast, and the exhibition is correspondingly eclectic in its themes and materials. A brilliant array of visual and material cultures are on display, including prints, landscape paintings and portraits, botanical illustrations, architectural drawings, musical scores, library catalogues, taxidermied birds, gardening manuals, medical and scientific instruments, political cartoons, clothes, textiles, sculpture and tableware. The enlightened princesses brought their interests into the domestic as well as the public sphere. The large broods of protestant princes and princesses they were imported to produce had Handel as a music master, learned architectural drawing, and were even taught to handle scientific instruments by fellows of the Royal Society. Domestic portraits of the elder children trundling their smaller siblings in a handcart or solemnly practicing their music became the basis of prints that spread the image of the royal family up and down the land. Influences also worked outward, from the royal household to the wider public sphere.

Some of the idealised portraits of the royal children can be seen behind.


Throughout, the exhibition registers shifts of scale, as the interests and activities of the princesses were projected onto different spheres. Botanists and collectors named new exotic plants for them, and sent them hand-coloured illustrations of their works as gifts; but they were also involved with new scientific establishments such as Kew Gardens, a research and social space that gained some of its fashionable lustre from the proximity of the royal household at Richmond and became a site for architectural experimentation and imperial display as well as botanical research. Inoculating the Hanoverian children against smallpox was also an intervention in a raging national debate about the treatment and epidemiology of the most devastating disease of the period.

These eighteenth-century princesses contributed to public debate about matters which impinged directly upon their own experiences and the health and productivity of the royal household. And a private audience with the Pinckneys of South Carolina was in one sense a breathlessly recorded encounter between sovereign and subject and a chat about American silk colonial fashions, and in another a microcosm of the relations between Britain and its colonies, the attempted subordination of colonial production to domestic manufacture, and the role of slavery in eighteenth-century Empire. The encounter between Princess Augusta and Mrs Eliza Lucas Pinckney is documented in this exhibition by a fascinating letter, discovered by Ben Marsh in the archives of the South Carolina Society of the Colonial Dames of America, and by a hugely striking sculpture, Mrs Pinckney and the Emancipated Birds of South Carolina, created in response to the letter by the contemporary artist Yinka Shonibare MBE (RA).

It’s worth noting that the shifts of scale the exhibition manages so well, the compression of the imperial to the domestic, and the expansion of the domestic to the national, was at least partly an effect of royal status and privilege; that not every act of scientific or artistic patronage or philanthropy was necessarily followed up to the fullest extent; that the courage shown in inoculating the royal children against smallpox has to be set against the squalid trial of the technique on condemned criminals and then orphaned children beforehand. Moreover a single room of the exhibition featuring acerbic visual satires of the princesses, by leading caricaturists such as James Gillray, reminds us that contemporaries were certainly not unanimous in praise for their royal patrons and cultural and scientific tastemakers.

As an overview of the enlightened princesses activity this exhibition made for compelling viewing, and was calculated to delight historians and archivists because of its focus on the non-obvious, on objects, instruments and paper as well as portraiture, and for the sense of widespread endeavours rather than simple pageantry and glorification.

Our thanks to Joanna for a fascinating tour and to Ben for helping to organise and taking the pictures!

Jun 23

I went to “Science” and all I got was this lousy t-shirt

May 17

Emus in space: visualising western and indigenous knowledge

2-image display for Yamajiart Exhibition 2007.


The Emu has great spiritual significance for the Aboriginal people for many male-kin initiation ceremonies. Their sacred role was (is) embedded deeply in place-based cultural attachments.1 Emus were a primary food source during the seasonal egg cycle, and remain frequent subjects in aboriginal art, reflecting their importance in the Dreaming cultures. Their consistent inclusion in stories across diverse linguistic groups is indicative of a long history.2 The rock engraving depicted in the lower section of the photo-montage lies in the Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, Sydney, and was used as a ritual and cultural site up to the arrival of the British Fleet in 1788.3 The changing patterns of the Milky Way were clearly visible to many Aboriginal communities throughout the year. Known as Dangarra, the ‘sky-emu’, the outline shape of the dark spaces of clouds and dust (in the upper section of the photomontage), formed the body, with the head in the top right and the body and legs towards the bottom left. This interpretation contrasts with Western readings of the Milky Way, which focus on the bright stars of the constellation as opposed to the dark spaces.4 Indigenous communities draw in the soil of ancestral and ceremonial land and on the skin of participants. Dots, circles, hatching and specific shapes signify particular geological features, individuals and events. Stories were made visible only to permitted elders or initiates; others did not see them as the soils would be flattened over and skin cleaned afterwards. Ancestral kin groups utilise drawings and stories to share knowledge in close kin or male/female contexts. The acrylic painted Emu, depicted using the ‘dot’ style painting familiar in Aboriginal art is a visually pleasing but redacted representation of the Sky-emu, hiding substantial sacred meanings to modern audiences.5 The dot paintings have now become characteristic of commercial, aboriginal art. The sky-emu echoed the flightless emus on the ground, reflecting understandings of connectivity between bodies in the cosmos and on land; ‘everything under Creation is represented in the soil and the stars. Everything has two witnesses, one on earth and one in the sky.’6

The images above embody and communicate complex indigenous scientific understandings of astronomical, ecological and social relationships. As with scientific visualisations in general, they do not stand in isolation but need consideration within ‘discursive practices within which these representations are embedded’.7 Aboriginal astronomical and ecological knowledge relies heavily on the visual/metaphorical language permeating through the fabric of indigenous society.  They explain the world differently from modern societies. Representations of the cosmos are depicted in rock art, stone structures and oral storytelling, telling origin stories and tying landscape features to social and environmental relationships.8 This oral/visual communication provides 40,000-years of astronomical knowledge from origin stories of the ‘Dreaming’ to contemporary times. The Dreaming describes an ahistorical age of creation which still flows through disturbed and reduced Aboriginal communities.9

Western science seeks to understand how the world works through a ‘scientific method’, with its systematic, epistemological processes.10 This approach contrasts with traditional knowledge systems which western science perceive of as being contextual, contingent, and less credible.11  Communication systems are similarly divergent, with Western models of science focusing on peer review, written and visual tools.12 Aboriginal knowledge transmission tends towards cultural encodings in oral and visual traditions, passed to successive generations through daily social, cultural and ritual events.13  Visual productions and storytelling are used to create analogies that explain relationships between people and the natural world; they are fundamental to social and ceremonial activity.14 The images at https://www.skatelescope.org/australia/, created for a  cross-cultural scientific programme exploring sharing of indigenous astronomical knowledge, represent and communicate indigenous science.

Since the emergence of environmental and climate change as pressing global concerns, there has been a burgeoning interest in the potential of indigenous knowledge systems to offer routes to how to live within our planetary boundaries.15 These systems of understandings have become a focus of wider ‘science’, beyond their established anthropological domain.  Visual narratives of long-term socio-ecological connections provide an alternative worldview that speaks to how the world works from a particular cultural perspective, which might be of use in facing these modern challenges.16

Indigenous narratives are not made-up stories in the western sense but form part of the rich re-enactments the Dreaming orderings of the social and natural worlds and the wider ancestral cosmos. They offer predictions about change, such as meteorological patterns, tidal flows, and seasonal variations based on transitions of the moon, planets and star systems.17 This knowledge is not ‘traditional’ in the sense of being static but transcends individual, community and multi-generational lifetimes. Indigenous knowledge fluctuates not because of inherent unreliability but because it recognises changing environmental states which require ongoing adaptation.18

The aim of both western and indigenous science is to make sense of the world. Both approaches can explain seasonal variations and landscape features, dictated by different scientific ‘subcultures’.19 Western sciences use atmospheric and radar technology to map storm systems or indicate weather events, and has a short history of experience to draw on. Aboriginal cultures assess the twinkling (scintillation) of the stars to determine levels of turbulence and moisture in the atmosphere, with demarcations applied to determine specific weather events and seasonal changes.20 Dreaming pictures and stories provide narratives of how to read and live in the ensuing conditions.

The images above exemplify this; the shape and the angle of the Emu within the dark sky of the Milky Way change throughout the year, and dark spaces appear around the ‘body’ of the emu as it moves. These visual changes identify the start of the gathering season for emu eggs – a major source of seasonal protein. Ecological studies indicate that many animals adapt their breeding season in line with astronomical movements, which vary slightly year on year. Fuller et al.21 and Leaman et al.22 both note that emu egg-laying coincides with rising of the sky-emu and match slight variations between years. The metaphysical stories of the Dreaming depicted here predict the physical availability of valuable sources of protein based on thousands of years of observation and place-specific knowledge. Both the western and indigenous approaches fulfil essential functions for managing people’s engagement with their environment:

When you first see the emu … you just see the neck and the head…and as the months go by it shapes into the emu, and then … it’s sort of lying and when it does that that’s when the emu’s laying eggs and everyone hunts for them … special time.23

Aboriginal Dreaming stories have been ratified by examining alignments between oral descriptions and identifiable geological or biological events, such as sea level changes, and meteor strikes. The communicative efficiency of this ‘long view’ transmission culture appears substantial.24,25,26 Sophisticated understandings of lunar/tidal processes and the earth as a finite object rather than a flat infinity predates ‘western’ science by thousands of years.27 This capacity for communicating observations and experience enabled indigenous communities to survive in challenging environments for 40,000years.

Science is frequently characterised as objective, and art as subjective, but Daston and Galison28 note that ‘images are inextricable from the daily practices of science, knowledge representation, and dissemination’29 such that the distinctions between objectivity and subjectivity, science and art are blurred.30 The cultural history of Aboriginal art shows that this is relevant to indigenous science too. The observational and visual processes of Aboriginal astronomers, facilitating understanding of indigenous knowledge as science, correlate strongly with Western scientific visualisation activities.

Liz Gladin

Student on Science Communication Masters Programme


  1. Norris, Ray P. and Duane W. Hamacher (2009) The Astronomy of Aboriginal Australia. Valls-Gabaud D., & A. Boksenberg, eds. The Role of Astronomy in Society and Culture Proceedings IAU Symposium.
  2. Fuller, R.S., Anderson, M.G., Norris, R.P., Trudgett, M. (2014) The Emu Sky Knowledge of the Kamilaroi and Euahlayi Peoples. Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage 17(2): 171-179.
  3. Norris Ray P. (2016) Dawes Review 5: Australian Aboriginal Astronomy and Navigation. Astronomical Society of Australia.
  4. Bhathal, Ragbir & Terry Mason (2011) Aboriginal astronomical sites, landscapes and paintings Astronomy and Geophysics 52 (4): 4.12-4.16.
  5. Myers, Fred (2009) ‘Representing Culture: The Production of Discourse(s) for Aboriginal Acrylic Paintings’, In Morphy, Howard, Morgan Perkins eds. The Anthropology of Art: A Reader John Wiley & Sons.
  6. Yorro YorroMowaljarlai (1993), Ngarinyin tribal Elder from Bhathal, Ragbir & Terry Mason (2011) Aboriginal astronomical sites, landscapes and paintings (pp 414).
  7. Burri Regula Valérie & Joseph Dumit (2008) ‘Social studies of scientific imaging and visualization’, Ch 13 in Ed Hackett et al., The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies, MIT Press: p300.
  8. Bhathal, Ragbir (2006) Astronomy in Aboriginal culture Astronomy and Geophysics 47: 5.21-5.30
  9. Bhathal, Ragbir & Terry Mason (2011) Aboriginal astronomical sites, landscapes and paintings Astronomy and Geophysics 52 (4): 4.12-4.16.
  10. Littlejohn, Stephen W., Karen A. Foss (2010) Theories of Human Communication. Waveland Press Chicago: pp344,
  11. Ellen, R. F., Peter Parkes, Alan Bicker (2000) Indigenous Environmental Knowledge and Its Transformations: Critical Anthropological Perspectives. Psychology Press
  12. Littlejohn, Stephen W., Karen A. Foss (2010) Theories of Human Communication.
  13. Sonia, Meg Parsons, Knut Olawsky, Frances Kofod (2013) The role of culture and traditional knowledge in climate change adaptation: Insights from East Kimberley, Australia. Global Environmental Change 23 (3): 623–632.
  14. Jason Byrne, Neil Sipe, Jago Dodson (2014) Australian Environmental Planning: Challenges and Future Prospects
  15. Green, D., G. Raygorodetsky (2010) Indigenous knowledge of a changing climate. Climatic Change 100 (2): 239-242.
  16. Walsh F. J., P. V. Dobson, and J. C. Douglas. 2013. Anpernirrentye: a framework for enhanced application of indigenous ecological knowledge in natural resource management. Ecology and Society 18(3): 18.
  17. Haynes, Raymond Roslynn D. Haynes, David Malin, Richard McGee (2010). Explorers of the Southern Sky: A History of Australian Astronomy Cambridge UP.
  18. Harding, Sandra (20150 Do Micronesian Navigators Practice Science? In Harding, Sandra, Objectivity and Diversity, University of Chicago Press.
  19. Aikenhead Glen S. (1997) Toward a First Nations cross-cultural science and Technology Curriculum Science Education 81: 217-238.
  20. Williams, Carl. Aboriginal astronomy and the natural world [online]. Australasian Science 36 (8): 16-19.
  21. Fuller, R.S., Anderson, M.G., Norris, R.P., Trudgett, M. (2014) The Emu Sky Knowledge of the Kamilaroi and Euahlayi Peoples. Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage 17(2): 171-179.
  22. Leaman, Trevor M., Duane W. Hamacher, Mark T. Carter (2016) Aboriginal Astronomical Traditions from Ooldea, South Australia, Part 2: Animals in the Ooldean Sky. Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage, 19 (1),
  23. Yubulyawan Dreaming Project Indigenous informant (2009)

http://ydproject.com/index.php/lowernav/general/httpydprojectcomindexphplowernavgeneralgalileo/galileo/ (accessed 12/08/16).

  1. Reid, N, Patrick Nunn, (2015) Ancient Aboriginal stories preserve history of a rise in sea level The Conversation https://theconversation.com/ancient-aboriginal-stories-preserve-history-of-a-rise-in-sea-level-36010 (accessed 12/08/16).
  2. Hamacher, Duane W., and Ray P. Norris. 2009. ‘Australian Aboriginal Geomythology: Eyewitness Accounts of Cosmic Impacts?’ Archaeoastronomy 22 (1): 62–95.
  3. Nunn Patrick D. (2014) Lashed by sharks, pelted by demons, drowned for apostasy: the value of myths that explain geohazards in the Asia-Pacific region. Asian Geographer 31 (1): 159-82.
  4. Norris Ray P. (2016) Dawes Review 5: Australian Aboriginal Astronomy and Navigation.
  5. Daston Lorraine, Peter Galison (2010) MIT Cambridge MA.
  6. Burri Regula Valérie & Joseph Dumit (2008) ‘Social studies of scientific imaging and visualization’, Ch 13 in Ed Hackett et al., The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies, MIT Press: p300.
  7. Daston Lorraine, Peter Galison (2010) MIT Cambridge MA.


Apr 21

Archiving from Below: Parenthood, Mortality and the Historian’s Dilemma

Example of children's work

‘I would like to go to lundn to see oll the peepl. I thinck it will be fantasck.’

I hesitate at gurning maw of the industrial paper compacter, suffering an existential crisis.

I’m at the council tip, clearing out my children’s school exercise books.  There’s too many of them and they are cluttering up the house.

I’m at the other end of the historian’s telescope; I’m making decisions about archiving—or not.  And it’s doing my head in.

So many hours of work, from three small hands (two left, one right), are archived in these A4, paper-bound volumes.  The maths is formulaic enough—lists of near-identical sums and times-tables—but there are also poems, stories, fragments of childish insight upon the world.  I am throwing away my children’s labours.  I am throwing away my children’s thoughts.

I am throwing away my children.

No, I correct myself: I am throwing away the fantasy that my children can be frozen in time, and the relinquishment of that fantasy is to the good.  A fond memory is a dangerous thing; it takes up house-room that is needed for present realities.  What kind of parent wants to preserve their child as an innocent five-year-old?  What kind of innocence would that be?

Besides, if I keep the books, when will I look at them?  When the children have left home?  When I am old?  Intolerable thought: it entails that I am facing death.  Will I want to look at them if one of the children has died?  Not merely intolerable: this thought is unthinkable.  If I keep the book, I think superstitiously, I plan for the event.

Then I catch the snag in this train of thought: I am presuming the books are mine.  Ah, but if I ask the children, they will certainly want to keep them.  They want to keep everything: bus tickets, a sticky animal card from a box of sweets, a bit of hubcap they found on the roadside.  So I must decide on behalf of their future selves.  If I keep the children’s books, will they want them?  Do I regret the fact that I have no examples of my own school work?  Not in the least.

But suppose one of the children becomes famous, perhaps a novelist?  Literature scholars will curse the fact that they have no insight into his earliest writing.

I reprimand myself for my vicariously hubristic fantasy.  Then I think, hell, someone has to become a famous writer, and there’s no reason why it might not be one of them.

Who aspires to be a historical character?  Surely only the self-entitled and the deluded.  If only the self-entitled retain their records, then they manoeuvre themselves into their own historical afterlife.  Perhaps their future history, proleptically enacted in the act of archiving, even makes their life ‘successful’.  The act of archiving shapes the present in deeply conservative ways, re-engraving the same lines of historiography over and over again.  The archive is destiny.

However, it is no hubris at all to assume that the children will be part of some collective historical story whose outlines I cannot yet discern.  Who am I to say what sources will speak to that story?  Perhaps I owe it to historians to keep my children’s material precisely because I believe they are ordinary, to dilute the archiving of the expected.

So far as the individual concerned goes, being destined for success—for a particular kind of success, as a writer, say—might be regarded as a blessing or a curse.  By throwing away I keep my children’s choices open even as I hide them from the historical lens of success.  I gain my children mental health, but I remain conservatively passive with regard to the shape of future history.

I console myself further with the professional thought that juvenilia reveals little: that psychologising of the infant subject is an unproductive research method.

And yet…

My current research concerns a set of historical ‘nobodies’, a group of young science fiction fans in inter-war Britain.  Their very non-importance to history is what makes them interesting to me—they offer a precious clue into what (some) ordinary people thought about science: how they interacted with it.  They have not left much by way of historical traces; even their census records from the period have been lost by fire.  Their youthful enthusiasm is ephemeral, caught in a moment of hope before the Second World War, and all the more historically precious for it.  I would be cock-a-hoop if I stumbled upon their school-books.

And now I am making life difficult for future historians in exactly the same way.

I am a thrower-away of my own potential archives.  I can’t bear the thought of people reading my letters, my drafts, my notes.  I can safely assume that I won’t be famous enough to cause a biographer to curse; but I am a part of stories that might be of future interest—gender stories, stories about higher education, stories about science and society.  Do I have the right to deny future historians their sources?  Do I have a right to disinter the sources of others?

I can’t help but notice that many of my historian colleagues talk about ‘The Archive’.  Is it mere chance that this strange singularity institutionalises the life of sources, removing them from their originators’ choices about saving or discarding?

Should a historian think more about her afterlife as a historical subject, and if so, how would this change her historiographical practice?


I didn’t have time to think about all this too much, at least, not whilst I was facing the compactor.  I had to hurry away; my eldest son was in the car, a doctor’s appointment due in ten minutes’ time.  He had a bacterial infection—no big deal: the antibiotics he was prescribed are currently clearing it up nicely.  A hundred years ago, he might have died from it.  I know that from history.

Feb 10

Dinosaurs in the Garden of England

Together with the Kent Animal Humanities Network, CHOTS looks forward to welcoming Dr Brian Noble of Dalhousie University, Canada.  Dr Noble will participate in a number of informal seminars as well as giving the annual H. G. Wells lecture for 2017:

“Good Mothers” and “King Tyrants” in the Mesozoic: An Anthropology of Dinosaur Science and Spectacle

Drawing on his recent book, Articulating Dinosaurs: A Political Anthropology, Anthropologist of Science Brian Noble discusses how dinosaurs have come to make a difference to us as humans, and us to them.  Noble combines his background in paleontology and museum exhibit design, with expertise in ethnographic research and critical literary, film, and cultural studies.  He brings to bear this inter-disciplinary in tracing how fossils and spectacles collide in the resurrecting of two particular dinosaurs: Tyrannosaurus rex and Maiasaura peeblesorum – and with that, details how these supposedly bygone creatures express the hopes and fears of our past and present moments.

Date: Weds 1 March, 2017
Time: 5.15 – 6.45pm followed by reception
Place: Templeman lecture theatre, University of Kent (Library building)


Nov 09

We Have Never Been Silent

by Daniel Belteki

In my research on the history of the Airy Transit Circle, I am attempting to introduce the concept of assemblage to illuminate both the internal and external multiplicity of singularity objects in their material and non-material contexts (not to be confused with interpretive flexibility which highlights the multiplicity of the interpretations of a single object). (Law, 2002, pp.1-11) To put it differently, I am interested in how things (e.g. screws, bolts, wires etc.) and non-material entities (e.g. organisational structures, practices of the users of the instruments etc.) come together to form a coherent (but not stable) whole. Through this theoretical adventure, I am attempting not only to continue with the now signature research direction in history of science that aims at uncovering the hidden actors of events, but also to demonstrate what insights can a historical visualisation of actants as multiples as opposed to isolated “ones” can offer us. (Shapin, 1989; Latour, 2005, pp. 4-5) As it was highlighted above, the multiplicity of an actant refers to both its material multiplicity (i.e. being made up of various other material bits and pieces) and to its contextual multiplicity (i.e. being part of a social-cultural network(s) that is made up by other actants). This piece was also inspired by Gaston Bachelard’s poetical vision on open and closed chests, and how both the inside and outside of a chest can be considered to be infinite. (Bachelard, 1994, pp. 85-86)

What follows is a brief elucidation of my thoughts with the help of two artworks. Damien Ortega’s Cosmic Thing has already caught and imprisoned the attention of two major scholars in the field of History of Science, John Tresch and Bruno Latour, and I would like to expand upon their dialogue of the exhibit. Cosmic Thing is a Volkswagen Beetle (or ‘vocho’ as it is called in Mexico) disassembled by the artist (following the manuals of the car) and then suspended with nylon strings from the top of the exhibition gallery room in an exploded view, thus making the various different components which make up the car visible. It is worth quoting the close description of some of the parts offered by Tresch: “[o]n the well-worn seats we see coffee spilled in the dilated present of weekday traffic. Dents on the hanging bumpers inscribe the mass somnambulism of a crowded city. The tread of the tires bears the mark of pavement and dirt road, sudden stops and anxious errands, the grip of open possibility in outward flights. Through the glass we see landscapes approached and left behind, ocean and mountain, skyscraper and brick house; on the faded grey pain are traced the relentless action of sum, dust, rain, and air, alongside residue of bird shit and crushed mosquitoes.” (Tresch, 2007, p.90) The second piece of art is a is a musical composition titled 4’33’’ by John Cage (first premiered in 1952) which still tends to startle people’s imagination as the composition consists of 4 minutes and 33 seconds of “silence”.

Damián Ortega - Cosmic Things, 2002

Damián Ortega – Cosmic Things, 2002

As it was mentioned above, scholars in history and sociology of science have already provided their interpretations of Ortega’s artwork. John Tresch used it as an example to illustrate his concept of cosmogram. According to Tresch, the Beetle stands suspended just like an atom or a solar system where each components are being held together through their dynamic (or in the case of the artwork, their frozen) relations to each other. These relations transcend their material boundaries in order to encompass the historical, cultural, economic, social and political entanglements within which it participated. Thus, the object becomes an “external depiction of the elements of the cosmos and the connections among them” (ibid, p.92).

Damián Ortega - Domestic Cosmogon, 2013

Damián Ortega – Domestic Cosmogon, 2013
Another piece by Damián Ortega exploring the idea of cosmos, and the relations between domestic object.

As a response to the interpretation of the artwork offered by Tresch, Bruno Latour characterises Ortega’s work with as a “thin” or idealist description of the Volkswagen Beetle as a thing. Latour criticises extensively Ortega’s view for not offering a thicker representation of the thing due to not exhibiting the actants that were involved in the assembly and production of the different parts of the car. However, this is not the final conclusion that Latour draws from the example. Instead, the French scholar highlights what remains left out in both thick and thin descriptions of things: the process of assembling. (Latour, 2007, p. 140) Similarly to Tresch, Latour evokes the right direction set out by Heidegger in focusing on the assembling, gathering or “thinging” of the elements. By describing the “assembling” process, we are able to demonstrate how things work not when they are suspended in an exploded view or “drawn in the res extensa mode”, but when the parts hide one another. Furthermore, it relocates power to the very process of assembling that becomes completed/finished (and thus hidden) once the object is assembled. (Ibid, p. 141)

Many of the ideas put forward by both Latour and Tresch seem to resonate with Roland Barthes’ meditation on the Citroen DS. For Barthes, the car was a superlative object that “fell from heaven”. According to Barthes, it is this fall that highlights the absence of its origin, transforms the passionate conceiver of the object into an unknown artist, and brings about “a silence which belongs to the order of the marvellous.” (Barthes, 2013, p.169) In the light of Barthes’ mythology, Ortega’s cosmic thing seems to overcome the otherworldliness of the object. As Tresch writes, the exhibited VW Beetle is far from showing its imperfections. Coffee is spilled on the seats, dents are visible on the body of the car, and the even the birds have laid their judgements on the vehicle. Latour, however, still imagines the object as a perfect object presenting itself in the way in which Barthes describes the divine object. Tresch’s attention to detail shows that the object is in fact a worldly object, and its history is manifested through the imperfections of the exhibited model. In consequence, while Latour rightly calls attention to the lack of “social assemblers”, Ortega’s work illuminates history itself as one of the assemblers of the Vocho.

Returning to Latour’s point about shifting the focus of our analysis to the process of “gathering”, perhaps we should look not towards artworks that are “static”, but rather at works that are “dynamic”. One of the most dynamic of arts is music itself. When music is performed, we experience the Heideggerian process of gathering and libation at the same time. (Heidegger, 2012, pp. 10-15) A musical instrument not only “gathers” the sounds (similarly to the same way as a jug holds its content), but also allows for their making through a sonic libation of sound production. In comparison to static contemporary art pieces, like Ortega’s Cosmic Things, the outpouring of the music is not created by the viewer’s or the consumer’s interpretation (i.e. through what Tresch labelled as the interpretive flexibility of the VW Beetle), but through the object’s (or the musical instrument’s) inherent “thinging”. (Ibid.)

If anything, the fields of STS and History of Science like to focus on cases when conventionality breaks down. In the world of music, one of the musical pieces that engages in an in-depth manner with the conventions of the art is 4’33’’ by John Cage. The piece itself is always a performance for any type and number of instruments, but the musicians are instructed not to play their instruments. The composition is divided into three movements. If performed on the piano, the beginning and the end of the music is signalled by the materiality of music and the performance, i.e. with the opening and the closing of the keyboard cover at the beginning and end of each one of the movements. Through these actions and with the presence of the instruments, the work of art engages with the basic conventions of music by calling attention to its most elementary components that gather and hold the sounds and music together. However, by not allowing the musicians to play their instruments, the work denies the outpouring of the “jug of music”, thus restricting the musical instruments from the sonic libation. Yet, through this restriction, other participants who take part in the musical performance are revealed: the audience and the space (or the environment) of the performance. In fact, as it is usually agreed between interpreters of this piece, music (or sound) is always created during the performance, but the sources of the sounds are not the musical instruments themselves. Rather sounds and music are created by the environment (the quiet hum of the ventilation systems, the squeaking of the chairs, the creaking of the floor, a distant sounds of ambulance sirens breaking into the concert hall etc.) and by the people themselves (people murmuring to each other, scratching an itch, yawning at the dull performance of the musicians etc.). (Marter, 1999, p. 132)

So what if we attempt to interpret John Cage’s piece with the ears of Latour? It can be argued, that 4’33’’ achieves what Latour has identified as the shortcoming of the Ortega’s Cosmic Thing. First, it brings together the actants that are generally hidden in the assembling of a musical performance (the audience and the environment) Second, it goes one step further by not even challenging the sounds produced by the “context” with the sounds of the musical instruments. It is this radical liberation of the hidden assemblers of the sounds that staggers the attentive audience. And even within the audience’s and the environment’s attempted conformation to the most basic conventions of music, they cannot be silenced. In fact, we realise that it is impossible for us not to make a sound (whether we are part of the audience or part of the environment). As if, during this whole time, we have never been silent.

Two pages from John Cage’s score for 4’33.

Two pages from John Cage’s score for 4’33.



  • Bachelard, Gaston, The Poetics of Space (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1994)
  • Barthes, Roland, Mythologies (New York: Hill and Wang, 2013)
  • Heidegger, Martin, Bremen and Freiburg Lectures (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2012)
  • Latour, Bruno, ‘Can We Get Our Materialism Back, Please?’, Isis, 98:1 (2007), 138-142
  • Law, John, Aircraft Stories: Decentering the Object in Technoscience (Durham, London: Duke University Press, 2002)
  • Marter, Joan (ed.), Off Limits: Rutgers University and the Avant-Garde, 1957-1963 (New Brunswick, NJ, and London: Rutgers University Press, 1999)
  • Shapin, Steven, ‘The Invisible Technician’, American Scientist, 77:6 (1989), 554-563
  • Tresch, John, ‘Technological World-Pictures: Cosmic Things and Cosmograms’, Isis, 98:1 (2007), 84-99

Sep 28

Food science: then and now


Jacie’s dissertation focused on food in WW2

img_2031Having looked at a huge range of universities and the courses on offer I decided to apply for the MSc Science Communication and Society at the University of Kent. I chose this particular course as it offered an opportunity to study a combination of Biosciences and History modules allowing me to gain a fantastic insight into how these different disciplines are interconnected. My BSc was in Food and Nutrition and I wished to progress towards looking at the impact of food throughout history. While I really enjoyed the Biosciences modules available and found Dan Lloyd a brilliant lecturer, I took more of the history modules as they allowed me to delve into a different area from my scientific Bachelors degree. The optional modules on offer were incredibly interesting and it was very difficult to choose, but I settled on Deformed, Deranged and Deviant, which examined changing medical science and attitudes towards people who were ‘different’. The module was a fascinating insight into a delicate and sensitive subject. I also chose Places, Spaces and Things: Museums, Material Culture and the History of Science module, which really challenged me to think and look at museums and places of science from a new perspective. As a member of a Heritage Group in my town, with plans to start a local museum, this module will prove invaluable in helping me to contribute to my community. Kent has been supportive, enjoyable, challenging and mind expanding! I have great respect for the lecturers here who have developed the MSc Science Communication course as it opens a path between Science and Humanities and allows students to discover the connections between these two disciplines. The knowledge gained on this course has enabled me to gain a PhD scholarship in History where I will be researching food in rural Kent during the Second World War.

Sep 27

Wunderkammer Autumn 2016

Here are this term’s Wunderkammer sessions. We’ll be discussing the History Manifesto, SciArt, early-modern globalisation, transhumanism and the history of peer review. We meet every other Tuesday, from 17.30-19.00, in the Unicorn pub, Canterbury. Full details on the pdf wunderkammer_autumn_2016

Jul 01

‘Visualising dynamic theories, what diagrams of molecular pathways represent’ by Filippo Guizzetti

Visualisation is a constitutive and essential part of the scientific activity. From basic research to the production of evidences (Amann and Knorr Cetina 1988), from the development of scientific theories to the stage of public evaluation, several methods of representation are the root from which the scientific discourse unfolds (Pauwels 2006, p.vii; Lynch 1988, p.153). Molecular pathways’ diagrams are a unique mixture of different forms of representation. They involve drawings, graphs, and diagrams, showing a dynamic process rather than a static and lasting entity. This essay will show that visualisation, interpretation and representation of scientific data is an active and knowledge-based process driven by pre-existing theories. Molecular pathways representations can be considered an effective way through which scientists display their interpretations, expectations and beliefs on molecular processes particularly difficult to visualise (Amann and Knorr Cetina 1988, p.86). Two diagrams representing a specific pathway will be analysed and compared to another type biological representation. Furthermore, it will be shown how the representations choices used for these diagrams reflect the audience of scientific experts they address. Finally, divergent points of view on to what extent theory-based and theory-driven observations can be considered reliable scientific facts will be presented. Using texts by Lynch, Hacking and other authors, molecular pathways representation will be debated as a particularly effective example demonstrating that empirical observations and theoretical knowledge are the two complementary and inseparable side of scientific investigation. Through the guide of scientific knowledge, these representations do not aim to crystallise theories, but to provide opportunities for scientific discussions and further investigations.

A constitutive feature of scientific activity is the production of visual representations of objects of study, processes and theories. Scientific publications always include images and illustrations that are irreplaceable documents enabling to perceive and analyse the object of study (Lynch 1985, p.195). In science, visualisation is performed using diverse techniques such as photographs, graphs, diagrams, maps, drawings, documents produced during laboratory research and illustrations included in published papers (Lynch 1998, p.27). Among these numerous forms of scientific visualisation, diagrams of molecular pathways constitute a unique and particularly interesting example. As the American NHGRI’s (National Human Genome Research Institute) website defines it, a biological pathway represents a series of actions and interactions among molecules (such as proteins, nucleic acids, simple molecules, chemical compounds and so on) taking place inside a cell and leading to a certain resulting change or effect in the cell itself (NIH National Human Genome Research Institute 2016). Typical “effects or changes” that molecular pathways trigger are inflammatory responses, assembly of new molecules, change in the DNA expression profile of a cell by turning specific genes on and off and myriad of other processes.

The processes necessary for visualising the components of these interactions, interpreting the data and effectively visualise these complex and dynamic networks would not be possible without a specific scientific knowledge. Moreover, some expectations and theories guiding research and interpretation are always necessary. As will be shown further in the text, molecular pathways can be considered representation of scientific theories rather than visualisation of “objects of science”. Considering these “visual dynamic theories” as trustworthy, therefore, involves relying on instrument of science investigations (Woolgar 1988, pp.31-33).

Visualisation in science involves several practices “associated with making objects observable and intelligible” (Lynch 1998, p.27). Observing is the fundamental activity that enables scientists to interpret the biological world, yet the human eye’s resolution limit varies between 0.1-0.3mm. Hence, in order to pursue studies in the biology field, it is necessary to use instruments such as the microscope enabling to see what is invisible (Bastide 1990, p.189). Microscopes and other visualisation techniques used in science allow scientists to closely observe the object of study and, thus, to accurately represent it and communicate it to other minds (Pyle 2000, p.69). Since the observational experience of biological specimens is possible only through the use of artificial organs, it will always be inevitably mediated by these instruments (Chalmers 1982, p.23). Furthermore, optical microscopies cannot be used when observing structures as small as molecules, viruses or cell’s organelles, all constituting element of biological pathways. In these cases, it is necessary to use more sophisticated techniques such as electronic microscopy, or photographic developing procedures like the Western blotting, used for visualising proteins’ presence and amount. Nevertheless, it is not the object itself what these instruments make observable, but its “trace” (Bastide 1990, p.189). A specialised knowledge is then necessary not only for using the instrument, but also – and especially – for interpreting the signal generated by this instrument, distinguishing and isolating it from the background and other signals (Hacking 1981, p.308). Every act of looking is, therefore, in itself an act of active interpretation that would not be possible without a prior knowledge enabling to use an  “artificial organ” such as the microscope (Kemp 2000, pp.42-43). Microscopes – and other instruments – are an extension of individual sense organs through which the skilled scientist can see or feel what the instrument discloses (Polanyi 1967 quoted in Lynch 1998, p.28).

The study of biological structures is, therefore, possible only through the use of highly sophisticated observational instruments that, however, enable scientists just to observe the trace of the object of study that, subsequently, need to be interpreted. Can we, thus, consider the use of these instruments as an act of seeing (Amann and Knorr Cetina 1988, p.86)? Do microscopes provide scientific realism about what could not be observed otherwise (Hacking 1981, p.305)? Microscopes and other instruments don’t allow for a direct interaction with reality, but just a projection of it (Bloor 1976, p.40). Through this process, the focus is moved to the “externalised retina”, that is the graphic field on which the “trace” is displayed (Lynch 1988, p.154). Hacking (1981) defends the act of observation through a microscope by claiming that its reliability lies on what the very act of observing is. Observation is not a passive experience, but an active procedure; a skill that is learned “by doing, not just by looking”. Scientists need to be trained and educated to interpret the partial image that they see, distinguish artefacts form real objects (Hacking 1981, p.310). To see means to recognise and linguistically identify an object, a process in which sense data emerging from an experiment or observation are translated into more solid evidences (Amann and Knorr Cetina 1988, p.85-88). Observation is, and must be, guided by the scientist’s skills, experience and expectations, (Bloor 1976; Chalmers 1982, p.23) in which his or her perception works as a filter that selects, simplifies and translates a chaotic world into perceiver’s projects and interests (Lynch 1988, p.155-156). Biological pathways fit perfectly in this theory of observation. Investigation on these events is guided by scientists’ theories, skills and ideas (Bloor 1976, p.25) and their representation is the final result of a process of translating data into evidences; evidences enabling a theory about a complex molecular network to be meticulously investigated.

Studying molecular hypothetical interaction networks is a complex, long and theory-based process of interpreting data, scientifically verify interactions between molecules, translate these connections into solid evidences and represent the subsequent final improved theory in the most effective way. But when studying pathways, what actually are the observable biological objects of study? The biological elements interacting in molecular pathways made visible thanks to scientific instruments are, using Lynch and Woolgar, not natural objects, but “proximal things”: “residues impressed on graphic matrices”, ordered and filtered samples, photographic traces and chart recordings; in other words, “resemblance or symbolisations of external objects” (1990, p.5). These data act as the basis for subsequent interpretations and discussions (Amann and Knorr Cetina 1988, p.90-93). Conventions, then, allow for making the object of study visible and analysable by fitting the raw visual data into the disciplinary organisation of scientific theories (Lynch 1998, p.196). Through this process, an observation, driven and filtered by a pre-existing theory, allows a new visualisation and representation of a biological object of study. What could, thus, be a final representation of a biological object?

Just as visualisation in science research is an active process transforming specimen materials into analysable data (Lynch 1985 p. 195), the final representation of scientific findings and theories is not just a simple replication of reality. Visualisation of scientific knowledge aims to reveal reality, to make it more understandable and accessible. Visual representation in science does not seek to be a replica of nature, but to resolve a problem, fill gaps in knowledge, or facilitate knowledge building and communication (Pauwels 2006, p.viii). Indeed, what scientists know about their object of study and what they want to communicate about it is expressed in the way they represent it (Lynch 1998, p.32; Trumbo 1999, p.270). The image in figure 1 represent this very effort.

Figure 1. Schematic representation of an animal cell. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2010. kids.britannica.com

Figure 1. Schematic representation of an animal cell. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2010. kids.britannica.com


Figure 1 shows the representation of a mammal cell from the children section of Encyclopaedia Britannica (Encyclopaedia Britannica Kids, 2010). The cell depicted in this diagram is not a real one, from a specific tissue with specific features, but the ideal cell, partially sectioned in order to show every basic feature that composes mammal cells. The white, neutral background helps to focus the attention on the image (Bastide 1990, p.200-203), while the use of several bright and unnatural colours and oversized inner structures makes it easier to identify the organelles in the different cell’s regions (Amann and Knorr Cetina 1988, p.112). Finally, thin lines connect the details to their linguistic identifications that surround and frame the image. What we see is not realistic, but an idealisation of an existing object that can be indirectly observed and visualised through the use of specific instruments. It represents a movement from the particularity of one observation to the generality of a scientific claim (Myers 1988, p.235-240). While in this image the process enabling these biological structures to be visualised is hidden (Lynch 1998, p.28), the knowledge that it represents is effectively concretised and communicated (Cambrosio et al 2005, p.187; Kemp 2000, p.120).

Pathways diagrams are created using these same visualisation concepts and guidelines. Nevertheless, pathways representation lies on a profoundly different level of complexity and abstraction. While the image in figure 1 is the idealisation of a lasting and observable biological structure, molecular pathways are phenomena, dynamic events in which the interaction between the participants begins, evolves and terminates during a finite period of time. Scientists can only observe the traces of these actions, by distinguishing and comparing data obtained before and after a process have taken place. These visualisations, then, must include the time dimension in order to explain processes that can be – only indirectly – observed in highly sophisticated ways. Graphs are the most used form of visualisation for such purposes since they can support more dimensions while remaining readable (Bastide 1990, p.206, pp.213-220).

Figure 2: A schematic representation of the JAK-STAT pathway in the activated state (particular). Shuai and Liu 2003, p.901

Figure 2: A schematic representation of the JAK-STAT pathway in the activated state (particular). Shuai and Liu 2003, p.901


The image in figure 2 is a representation diagram of the JAK-STAT molecular pathway taken from a review article published on the scientific journal Nature Reviews (Shuai and Liu 2003, p.901). The graphic design is, to a certain extent, similar to the one used for the animal cell in figure 1, whereas the differences between these two images help to highlight the key features of pathways representation. First of all, it is clearly noticeable that the target audience of these two images is completely different. While the cell image was included in an educational publication for children, the image in figure 2 comes from a scientific journal targeting an audience of scientific experts (Lynch 1988, pp.153-154). This difference is further underlined by the fact that while the cell image provides taxonomical annotations, the pathway diagram is completely indecipherable without a specific background knowledge. Both the images need to be contextualised by being integrated in a further explaining text (Bastide 1990, p.193-197); yet they are conceived in order to be identified and understood at a first glance by the audience they are targeting (Myers 1988, p.247).

Focusing on the pathway diagram, several elements worth being highlighted. The horizontal structure made of dots is a schematic representation of the cell membrane’s double layer dividing the extracellular space (white background) from the cytoplasm (green background); the nucleus is yellow and its membrane shows interruptions suggesting that the proteins involved in the pathway are able to pass through it. Indeed, the proteins constitute the core of the image and of the pathway as well. In order to highlight the concept over the representational accuracy (Myers 1988, p.240), proteins are represented as simple geometrical, two-dimensional and out of proportion objects with peculiar colours and shapes distinguishing them (Lynch 1988, p.168). They are also tagged with an acronym that stands for the complete name (e.g. JAK: Janus Kinase; STAT: Signal transducer and activator of transcription) (Amann and Knorr Cetina 1988, p.114). The key aspect of time, peculiar point of these diagrams, is represented using arrows and the vertical orientation of the image that must be read from top to bottom as a cascade of events (Myers 1988, p.247-249). An arrow connects a protein in its initial state (STAT on the left) to the same protein in a modified form (on the right), where an amino acid Tyrosine (Y) is modified (“phosporylated”) by the addition of a little P that stays for a phosphate groups. This transformation is triggered by the cytokine receptor, coupled with the cytokine (a small molecule working as a inter-cellular signal) and JAK proteins. Another arrow shows the movement of two modified STATs going inside the nucleus and triggering the final result of the entire pathway: a modification in DNA transcription (Bastide 1990, p.219-220).

Clearly, this is not an accurate representation of natural objects, nor is an idealisation of something that can be isolated and observed as it was for the animal cell in figure 1 (Lynch 1998, p.30-31). Pathways are a deep mathematical, visual and symbolic reconstruction of a phenomenon’s organisation (Lynch and Woolgar 1990, p.6; Cambrosio et al 2005). Their representations must be addressed more as a translation of a verbal argument into a visual discourse that unfolds through symbols and connections, as it would be for logic studies in philosophy (Lynch 1998, p.30; Lynch 1988, pp.160-162; Allchin 1999, p.291). Thanks to the acquisition of arrows and other symbols, diagrams become narrative and dynamic describing processes that, just as a theory or a discourse, have a beginning and an end (Kress and Van Leeuwen 1996, pp.83-83). They are logical demonstration visualised through a process of “figuration” (Cambrosio et al 2005, p.189).

Since it has been show that pathways diagrams are articulated visualisations closer related to a form of visual discussion on a theory than to an object’s representation, this means that a single diagram can be improved or modified in order to show different or new aspects of the theory it visualises.

Figure 3: A schematic representation of the JAK-STAT pathway in the inhibited state. Shuai and Liu 2003, p.903

Figure 3: A schematic representation of the JAK-STAT pathway in the inhibited state. Shuai and Liu 2003, p.903


Figure 3 shows another image of the same JAK-STAT pathway taken from the same article (Shuai and Liu 2003, p.903). It can be seen that the main surrounding structures (cell membrane, cytokine receptor, nucleus) and the backgrounds are the same as in figure 2. This is an important aspect that makes us instantly understand that we are talking about the same topic and theory. However, instead of showing the pathway mechanism in its working state, it shows in what way this network is negatively regulated. New proteins are represented with new colours and a new organelle, the proteasome, is visible. There is also a new logic symbol that looks like a flipped “T”. This symbols derives from the modified Systems Biology Graphical Notation (mSBGN) and represents an inhibition influence on a target, in opposition to the arrow that represents stimulation or a transition from a state to another (SBGN.org). The addiction of this simple symbol enables the possibility of more articulated discourses and improves the visual representation.

It is now clear that the research on these molecular phenomena is embedded in and guided by pre-existing theories generated by scientists’ past experiences, knowledge and expectations (Chalmers 1982, p.25; Bloor 1976, p.30). This means that the same philosophical problems that sociologists and philosophers have raised for addressing scientific theories affect also the diagrams in which these theories are embodied. Chalmers firmly states that “theory of some kind must precede all observation statements and observations statements are as fallible as the theories they presuppose” (Chalmers 1982, p.28). Since observations are permeated by theory, it could be presumed that only those observations that can confirm and shed more light on a pre-existing theory are carried out, while those considered misleading are ignored (Chalmers 1982 pp.32-33; Bloor 1976, p.25). Even on the representation and publication stage, scientists can choose what to show and what to hide in order to reinforce their theories (Morus 2006, p.105).

Considering these aspects, can representations of dynamic invisible processes be reliable? The fact that representations deriving from scientific researches and observations, especially concerning complex and elusive phenomena as molecular interactions networks, are based on and driven by theories and expectations does not imply that these observations and findings are purely fictional (Amann and Knorr Cetina 1988, p.114). On the contrary, ideas and theories are needed in order to use scientific instruments, to interpret the data that they produce and to formulate and improve conception on what we see rather than just seeing it (Hacking 1981 315-316; Pyle 2000, p.69). The image, even though “fabricated”, is the way of “visually reproducing the sense of what was seen”, which is a longer process made of numerous observations, comparison and discussions involving several scientists. Through a process of “visual thinking”, production of scientific images is incorporated as a part of conscious thoughts, deciding what shapes, lines, colours and compositions to use for making them meaningful (Trumbo 1999, p.269).  Visual evidences don’t work as a way to visually crystallise theories, but providing opportunities for discussions and further investigations (Amann and Knorr Cetina 1988, pp.114-115).

The study of biological molecular interactions would not be possible without the use of highly sophisticated instruments enabling scientists to visualise what is invisible and to extrapolate from the biological chaos a “docile object” (Lynch 1985, p.201). It has been shown in this essay that every aspect of the research on molecular pathways, from their observation and confirmation in the laboratory, to the graphical visualisation of the hypothetical process, needs a specific and advanced knowledge capable of interpreting and deciphering it. Pathways diagrams are a unique form of visual discourses representing scientists’ theories, ideas and expectations. They are as fallible as the theories they represent. Nonetheless, their presence in scientific articles is crucial in order to effectively communicate these theories and how they were conceived. Although “fabricated”, this mathematical representations and the scientific data they present are not fictional (Amann and Knorr Cetina 1988, p.114). Through the process of visual thinking, production of such scientific images is incorporated as a part of conscious thoughts helping the improvement of the scientific practice by sharing knowledge and triggering discussions, investigations and new researches.

Filippo Guizzetti (2016)


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