The crucial role of models in science
The development and use of models as research tools to understand the world continues to fascinate scholars in science and technology studies (STS), and particularly those interested in the dynamics of scientific knowledge production and related scholarship in the history and philosophy of science (HPS). Models are ubiquitous in scientific practice, and yet their sheer diversity of forms and roles dazzles anyone attempting to analyze their epistemic significance and social roles. Moreover, while philosophers have published countless studies of the criteria used by scientists to develop and select models as representations of objects and processes in the world (Frigg and Hartmann 2012), what makes a model or a modeling activity successful among researchers—what makes its results convincing, its use fruitful, and its manipulation satisfying—remains shrouded in mystery. Perhaps the most cryptic aspect of modeling work is its concreteness, which becomes evident when considering cases of scientists working with material objects such as scale models, diagrams and physical reconstructions of particular ways of conceptualizing a given phenomenon, like the famous ball-and-sticks three-dimensional model of the triple helix used by James Watson and Francis Crick to explore the structure of DNA. Natasha Myers has devoted over a decade to studying the ways in which biologists act, think and move with and around material models, and Rendering Life Molecular is a wonderful account of the insights acquired through her research and relentless desire and ability to push the boundaries of contemporary STS scholarship.
The book convincingly argues for what Stengers (2010) has called “reciprocal rendering” between researchers and their objects: In this case, the extent to which biologists are conditioned to respond to and think with the molecules, and related experimental apparatus, that they study. Myers extends Stengers’ insights by identifying a key mechanism for such responsiveness, which she dubs “kinesthetic imagination”: the intertwining of sensory and conceptual work that enables researchers to reason through their intuitions and experiences in the laboratory, and use them to “think intelligently about molecular structure” (113). In what follows, I briefly discuss four aspects of her analysis that I hope will be picked up and explored further by STS and HPS audiences, as they bring new and potentially transformative fodder to ongoing debates in those fields.
In the chapters that follow, Myers also describes the “seduction” and “lure” of beautiful and tractable models and the dangers of “getting a model wrong,” thus hinting at the epistemic problems involved in becoming dependent or otherwise attached to specific ways of modeling the world. True to her ethnographic approach, her account is geared toward capturing the dynamics of this process—including the moral economies, values and vices involved, and the related “culture of objectivity” surrounding scientific work—rather than evaluating its implications for the knowledge being produced.
while it is true that novices have a hard time experiencing the tangibility of computer graphic models, over the extended duration of laboratory training and with the experience of constant interaction with these objects, their perceptions shift. This reconfiguration of their sensorium is crucial in the process of becoming a protein crystallographer. (93)
The second, related aspect is the conceptualizations of experiments as situations where the feelings and sensory experiences of researchers play a crucial role. Myers’ analysis of the tactile manipulation of molecules as “imagined experiments” resonates with contemporary scholarship on thought experiments and fictional make-believe as important tools towards understanding the world (Brown and Fihige 2016; Toon 2012), while also bringing attention to the concrete demands of the techniques, technologies and institutions involved in experimental work. Starting from the seemingly obvious observation that “machines outnumber people, and they demand constant attention and interaction; they are never left to their own devices” (68), Myers explores how computers, X-ray diffraction machines, and visualization software reconstitute and animate the molecular materials, and how this informs the teaching and conduct of experimental work. This provides a powerful corrective to facile narratives exalting the power of automation in laboratory settings, while at the same time following in the footsteps of Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, Richard Burian, Evelyn Fox Keller, Karen Barad and others in highlighting the central epistemic importance of technologies in constituting the objects of scientific interest.
This brings me to the third aspect I wish to highlight, which is Myers’ own rendering of molecules, and particularly proteins, as key components of life. This rendition is strongly colored by Myers’ authorial voice, and the multiple backgrounds and interests that she brings to her analysis: the scientific expertise that she acquired through her years of training as a biologist; a long-term reflection on the significance and enactment of movement shaped by her experience as a dancer; deep ethnographic engagements with several laboratories in crystallography and molecular biology over a number of years; and a strong awareness of relevant research in feminist epistemology and phenomenology. Viewed through her interdisciplinary approach and engaging language, molecules emerge as highly personable and dynamic entities, far from the inert and reductive qualities often associated with these biological components and the machines used to study them. As Myers concludes, “liveliness is a relational concept” which entangles humans, narratives, materials, molecules and machines, and evades linear narratives about how researchers can capture the essence of proteins, their behavior, or even “life itself”.
Rendering Life Molecular is a thought-provoking book, a whirlwind ethnography pregnant with epistemological and empirical insights on movements, practices, knowledge and reasoning around proteins, which can and should inform future philosophical studies of modeling as well as STS work on experimental practices in and beyond biology. It is excellent reading for anyone interested in the use of material models in the sciences, and itself constitutes an important model for how science scholars can study biologists’ routine encounters with the molecules that make up organisms, and thus increase their understanding of the research practices, habits and effects that underlie humankind’s increasing power to interact with, manipulate and create life.
This work was funded by the European Research Council Grant award 335925.
- Brown, James Robert, and Yiftach Fehige. 2016. Thought experiments. In The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy (Spring 2016 Edition), ed. Edward N. Zalta, http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2016/entries/thought-experiment/.
- Frigg, Roman, and Stephan Hartmann. 2012. Models in science. In The Stanford encyclopaedia of philosophy (Fall 2012 Edition), ed. Edward N. Zalta, http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2012/entries/models-science/.
- Stengers, I. 2010. Cosmopolitics I. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.Google Scholar