Scientific representations are different than the things they
represent. A representation, model or description is a limited
view of the subject, made for a specific purpose, edited by the
scientist and translated into a form the scientific audience
can understand and use. As scientific representations are made
by and for humans, they are part about the scientific subject
and part about the humans using them.
* * * *
A world map is a useful device, but one with a plethora of
differences than what it represents. To start with the obvious,
the world isn't flat and it isn't paper thin. These unrealistic
qualities are for the convenience of the user.
For easy understanding, maps are artificially colored and
marked (latitude and longitudes lines, for example). Road maps
usually make roads appear proportionally wider than in reality,
and remove unwanted details.
All world maps have proportional distortions. For an example
see the map on the following page. Translating anything three
dimensional into two dimensions requires distortions, as three
dimensions and two dimensions are mutually exclusive. Compare
your world map at home to a globe and see the differences for
yourself. There are different methods of mapping the earth, each
method creating its own distortions.
Distortions on maps. As with all types of world maps,
this common mercator projection map has significant distortions.
Greenland is incorrectly shown as being bigger than Africa. Alaska
is shown as being as large as Brazil, when Brazil is really multiple
* * * *
The above representation of an atom is different than a real
atom in an abundance of major ways. To start, it's thousands
and thousands of times larger than a real atom. If it wasn't
you couldn't see it.
The representation hardy resembles an atom, and the artist
would agree. The intent was to make a dummy model for students
to learn about the different atomic 'parts.' The unreal balls,
outer ring and cartoonish appearance are designed to engage the
audience, simplify things.
As with the map, this representation is part about the subject
and part about humans. It is in a form students can understand.
In this case the form students understand looks more like a Saturday
morning cartoon character than an atom.
* * * *
Any human representation of something complex (and all things
are complex) is simplified and distorted, focusing on a specific
area, quality, layer or angle, made from a limited amount of
information, interpreted by the maker's sensibilities, presented
in a way the maker and audience can understand.
As a means of communication, a representation will include
conceits of the scientist, audience and even general culture.
These conceits include expected form (pie charts, graphs, book,
magazine article), style, shape, measurement method (volume,
height, meters, liters), color associations (hot = red, cold
= blue, forest = green).
It is similar to art, where following the genre's conceits,
even shallow ones, are constraining but necessary for communication.
The conceits create an artificial representation, but without
them you might as well be communicating in a foreign language.
* * * *
Just as the creation and perception of art involves human
psychology, so does the creation and perception of scientific
Whether they admit it or not, scientists and philosophers
view the universe and the things in it psychologically. A scientist
and his work can no more escape human psychology than the scientist
can escape being human.
* * * *
All one has to do is to look at a scientific representation,
any representation, and find the human imprint- the human sensibility
in form, style, color, language, balance, aesthetic choice. A
representation of water may be a magazine article in English.
English language and magazine articles, of course, have to do
with humans and communication between humans. The article's subject
may be about water, but its form is human. The article will be
read as a work of human literature, as it is a work of human
literature. As an artifact, the article shows about as much about
humans as it does about water.
* * * *
This illustrates an essential human problem that goes beyond
science. Humans must translate a subject to understand it, but
what they understand is the translation.
* * * *
A scientific representation is a product of the scientist's
purpose. A different purpose will produce a different representation
of the same subject.
I own three maps of North America. One represents the altitude
(mountains, valleys, etc), one shows the traditional aboriginal
tribal regions and one is a road map. Even though they are of
the identical place, each map is different. It's not so much
whether the maps are right or wrong, but that they were created
from different purposes.
* * * *
Many to most scientific representations aren't intended to
be the be all and end all. Scientists usually consider scientific
models to be works in progress, to be studied, tested, reworked,
changed and even tossed aside as necessary. Science is a continual
work in progress.
For testing purposes, models are often intentionally made
to be overly simple. One purpose of such simplification is that
errors are more easily identified and corrected. With a more
complicated, muddled model, it's harder to identify what is working
and what is not. Another reason for simplification is the scientist
may be studying only one aspect of the subject. The other aspects
are excluded. If a dentist is studying the teeth and gums, there
may be no need for her computer model to be full-bodied, including
detailed feet, fingernails, hair color and bellybutton. It may
not even include eyes and nose, even though people with teeth
and gums also have eyes and noses nearby. She may consider these
details distracting and "beside the point." A scientist
will often be the first to say his representation isn't a duplication
of the subject, and was never intended to be an exact duplication
of the subject.
As with communicating of scientific ideas to others, reducing
a subject into a simplified if unrealistic model has practical
purposes. Scientific progress would be stunted without simple,
* * * *
Knowing that all representations contain fiction, a question
to ask about a particular representation is whether the fiction
is a device required for communication of ideas, testing or other
practical use, or is it wrongly portrayed as part of the subject's
innate meaning. If you are well aware a fiction is fiction, there
is no big issue. If you confuse fiction for fact, that is a problem.
While fiction, the size of the earlier representation of an
atom is needed for humans to see the representation. If the representation
was life size, it would useless to instructors and students.
Similarly, artificial color coding for a diagram or map can make
for easier and quicker understanding. It's easier to find countries
on a map if each is distinctly colored. These are examples of
where the inclusion of artifice is fair and understandable.
A related question is how seriously is the fiction taken,
both by the creator and the audience. Students and even seasoned
scientists can become too comfortable, too enamored with clichés
of color, shape and words. Through repetition, superficial conceits
can become false idols.
(c) david rudd cycleback, cycleback.com
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