Department of History of Science and Ideas

Charlotte Bigg: "Diagrams in the History of Science"

  • Date: 2/23/2016 at 1:15 PM 3:00 PM
  • Location: Engelska parken - The Rausing Room
  • Organiser: Department of History of Science and Ideas
  • Contact person: H. Otto Sibum
  • Seminarium

Office for History of Science

Charlotte Bigg, Centre Alexandre Koyré (EHESS-CNRS-MNHN): "Diagrams in the History of Science"


Abstract
Archeologists’ sketches, botanical drawings, photographs of particle tracks or brain scans belong to a family of scientific images that purport to represent reality or some aspect of it. These images most obviously raise questions about their evidentiary status, the kind of representation of nature they offer and consequently the mediations operated by technologies of visualization. They have given rise to a rich literature in the sociology and history of science, which has profited from fertile interactions with other fields such as the history of art or the history of photography.

An equally important though perhaps less obvious, or less obviously visual type of scientific iconography includes tables, graphs, diagrams, chemical formulae, maps and other abstract two-dimensional representations. They are referred together as diagrams, or spatial arrangements on a two-dimensional surface of letters, numbers and/or words in combination with lines, shapes or images. These are not usually thought of as images since they do not follow realistic conventions of representation. Nonetheless, they have proven very powerful and effective in many scientific enterprises and are routinely used today in all fields of science.

My talk will offer a survey and analysis of the recent literature pertaining to diagrams in the history of science and neighboring fields. More than a combination of text and image, diagrams are now for instance increasingly understood as tools for thinking and acting : they portray relations, help manipulate numbers and other entities, they organize, display and communicate information, and they are put to many practical uses. Across the wide diversity of their forms and historical contexts, diagrams are seen to mediate between the world and abstract knowledge, and between different actors involved in scientific enterprises, such as scientists, students, engineers or craftspeople.