History and philosophy of visualization in the practice of science

My present research is in the history and philosophy of visualization in scientific practice. This includes understanding the use and function of diagrams and other epistemic images and investigating the ways that scientific reasoning is enabled and constrained by visual styles and conventions.

Dissertation research

Dissertation title: “Form and Function: Seeing, Knowing, and Reasoning with Diagrams in the Practice of Science”

My doctoral thesis is devoted to the subject of diagrams of the invisible, to investigating those of diagrams that are used to represent unseen entities (those that are either invisible either in principle or in practice). Which factors prevail in determining the forms that these diagrams in the absence of visible subjects?

Do technical, context-specific details shape diagrams or are they molded by broader social and scientific conventions? How are the epistemic functions of diagrams related to their structures? Are there any philosophical lessons concerning models and representations that can be drawn from stories of diagrammatic successes and failure? Can we reach any general conclusions as to what might make one scientific diagram preferable to another?

My dissertation addresses these questions by focusing physical and chemical diagrams from nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I investigate the diagrams drawn by Richard Feynman, including several of his earliest lectures in which he introduced his “New Approach” to quantum electrodynamics, an approach that, of course, includes his famed Feynman diagrams. This research was conducted at the Caltech Archives and focuses on lectures given around 1949-50, which have so far gone unaddressed by historians.

My dissertation also discusses the diagrams produced by mid-nineteenth century organic chemists August Kekulé and Alexander Crum Brown. It tracks the origin and fate of Kekulé’s “sausage” diagrams and Crum Browns’ “ball-and-stick” graphical representations through the 1860s. While both graphical methods were proposed as legitimate means of representing the structural relationships between atoms, only Crum Brown’s images survived the decade. My dissertation highlights the factors that impacted these images’ respective failures and successes.

Finally, I address the origins of stereochemical images, that is, diagrams that are intended to represent the spatial locations, and not just the chemical connectivity, of chemical compounds. In particular, my work examines the images and models produced by one of the founders of stereochemistry, J. H. van ‘t Hoff. I will be performing further research on this subject at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, where I will be researching under an Allington Fellowship this fall.

In addition to performing primary historical research, my dissertation simultaneously engages with a host of philosophical issues, such as those dealing with realism, scientific analogical reasoning, models and representations, and the power and place of visual representations. As an integrated historian and philosopher of science, I intend to draw upon these well-researched historical examples to gain philosophical insight and to shed light upon the function of diagrams in the practice of science.

My thesis supervisor is Chen-Pang Yeang, the IHPST’s resident historian of physics and all around great guy. David Kaiser and Brian Baigrie also serve on my thesis committee.

Other research: epistemic visual representations

My other primary subject of research concerning the use of imagery in the practice and teaching of science and medicine centers around visual conventions and anatomical imagery. This research has so far focused on (but is certainly not limited to), the colouring that anatomical plastinations undergo for public exhibits such as Body Worlds. As highly modified corpses prepared for public display, the colouring decisions that surround these objects is informed by longstanding anatomic conventions, a desire to capture a sense of freshness and reality, and, of course, the thorny politics of getting the public to accept the public display of cadavers. This research is still underway and will ultimately be combined with further research into anatomical visual conventions.

Other research

As part of the University of Toronto Scientific Instrument Collection I am also involved in researching a wide variety of scientific instrumentation and their place within the institutional history of the University of Toronto, and, more generally, within the history of science. Presently this research focuses on the history of physics at U of T.

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