Visual Representations of Structure and the Dynamics of Scientific Modeling

William Goodwin


Understanding what is distinctive about the role of models in science requires characterizing broad patterns in how these models evolve in the face of experimental results. That is, we must examine not just model statics—how the model relates to theory, or represents the world, at some point in time—but also model dynamics—how the model both generates new experimental results and is modified in response to them. Visual representations of structure play a central role in the theoretical reasoning of organic chemists. Not surprisingly, these representations have changed in important ways–in response to experimental and theoretical developments– throughout the history of organic chemistry. In many cases it is appropriate to understand the visual representations used by organic chemists as models. The evolution of the structural representations of organic chemists therefore provides a clear example of the dynamics of scientific modeling. In this paper I use a conception of scientific modeling drawn from the work of Mary Hesse to examine how the concept of a molecular conformation was incorporated into the visual representations of structure used by organic chemists.

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