This past week, a very interesting discussion has been emerging around the role of models, in the course of work on a new programme of the KNAW on computational humanities. The representational role of models tends to be at the forefront of people’s minds in this discussion. This means that models are seen as representations of the world. In this line of thinking, the power of models is in simplifying or emphasizing certain elements. In being less complex than reality, models enable specific dynamics to be explored. And, in this view of models, they can be evaluated as good or bad representations, depending on their proper relationship to the world.
Models, however, like any other tool, also have a performative function. This means that in building and using them, they shape our understanding of the world and of the questions we pose using models.
In trying to find good ways to bring forward this aspect of models, I have been thinking about the work collected by de Chadarevian and Hopwood and Natasha Myers’ Molecular Embodiments. But mostly I was thinking about David Gooding’s work on Faraday’s drawings, on his visual reasoning, and subsequent work on the role of visual models in scientific discovery. The reasons for drawing on this work are multiple. David’s work can be considered a kind of historical ethnography, which is a very difficult kind of work to do, and one that is especially well done in David’s work on Faraday. David’s cases are also ‘hard’—because of the areas he looks at, and because of his demonstrations of just how essential the visual was in taking particular steps in the development of knowledge. And finally, David’s orientation to cognitive issues and use of a cognitive vocabulary will go down well with the crowd I’m hoping to engage.
While David’s work remains for me to share with others, I have just heard the sad news of his death.
David was designated as mentor for me, as a new staff member at the Science Studies Center at the University of Bath in 1999. These were tumultuous times for us both (for David: new MSc programme, new love and shortly after new wife, daughters leaving home for uni, diagnosis of a very serious illness…. for me: first job, finishing my PhD, having a baby, figuring out life in the UK with my new husband…). David was a consistently supportive presence throughout all of this, though, not surprisingly, most of our intellectual exchanges took place in writing, and our meetings focused on putting out various fires, admin- or student-related.
More recently, as life seemed to quiet down a bit and as our research interests were again converging, I was looking forward to further working with David, and invited him to join the advisory board for this project. In this too, David was very supportive.
He was an insightful scholar and a generous and thoughtful man. Besides his work, the memory of the kind gaze he invariably turned on the world also remains with me.