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Synthesising heterogeneity: trends of visuality in biological sciences circa 1970s - 2000s

Au, YC; (2016) Synthesising heterogeneity: trends of visuality in biological sciences circa 1970s - 2000s. Doctoral thesis, UCL (University College London). Green open access

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This is a case study of diagrams in a field of biological mechanism research (apoptosis), revealing that mechanism diagrams play a crucial role in the practice of developing mechanistic explanations for cell biology. This thesis supports and extends the existing literature in the following aspects: the relationship between scientific representation and practice (Daston and Galison, 2007), inter-field and inter-level integration in biological practice of mechanism research (Bechtel, 2006; Craver and Darden, 2013), and the assertive and engaging power of diagrams (Bender and Marrinan, 2010; Wood, 1992, 2010). The methodology is composed of two parts: quantitative and qualitative. The quantification draws the comprehensive patterns of diagram use via analysing the coverage of diagrams. The qualitative part analyses three layers of the diagrams: visual element, composition, and style. This part contextualises the diagrams in four senses: source of ideas, perspective, adjacent text, scope of research. The results and the interpretation of results are also composed of quantitative and qualitative parts. The quantitative part shows a noticeable prevalence of two themes of diagrams: object and mechanism. The former reflects an interest in manipulating entities. The latter reflects an interest in integration of, and interaction between, different perspectives. The relative changes in the coverage of these two themes suggest a shift in the focus of practice from manipulation of biological entities toward inter-field interaction between heterogeneous perspectives. The qualitative part contains a central argument and several interesting discoveries. The central argument is that mechanism diagrams synthesise heterogeneity and thus have the power to assert novel ideas and engage real-world practice. The heterogeneity of perspectives is embedded in the practice of developing the cell models. The term “synthesis” means that novel meanings emerge from the integration of existing perspectives. This novelty of meanings attributes to the assertive power of mechanism diagrams. The engaging power facilitates interaction amongst the component perspectives, which is an important feature of mechanism research. In sum, this argument can explain the increasing reliance upon diagrams found in the quantitative results. The other interesting qualitative discoveries include but are not limited to the following. Firstly, biological diagrams can go beyond visual resemblance to entities. Secondly, there are many creative ways of making diagrams, such as importing visual vocabulary from non-specialist areas and modular use of visual elements. These creative ways show that visual conventions in biological diagrams are not given but undergo evolution, probably responding to the growing complexity of ideas. Thirdly, the evolution of biological visualisation is not merely driven by development of technology but embodies the interaction between ideas and technological advancement. The conclusion of this study treats mechanism diagrams as both epistemological and communicative devices acting in the research dynamics. The communication is part of the processes of knowing and intervening, taking place both horizontally and longitudinally. The horizontal communication is amongst different research groups in the field. The longitudinal communication is between different stages of model developing by the same individuals. Diagrams serve in the constant defining and redefining of boundary of research arenas through bringing about new problems and activating future research.

Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Title: Synthesising heterogeneity: trends of visuality in biological sciences circa 1970s - 2000s
Event: UCL (University College London)
Open access status: An open access version is available from UCL Discovery
Language: English
Additional information: Third party copyright material has been removed from ethesis.
Keywords: diagram, biological mechanism, heterogeneity, visual representation
UCL classification: UCL > School of BEAMS
UCL > School of BEAMS > Faculty of Maths and Physical Sciences
URI: http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/1478180
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