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Interpretive Journeys: How Physicists Talk and Travel through Graphic Space
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Interpretive Journeys:
How Physicists Talk and Travel through Graphic Space

Constructing an Interpretive Journey

A major facet of the work of scientific laboratories is making sense out of ongoing experimental activity and fashioning trajectories for future experiments, presentations, publications, and proposals. As studies of science have remarked, the construction of knowledge in this context is highly dependent on a variety of semiotic tools, especially natural language and visual representation. A prevailing neo-Whorfian view is that these resources are artefacts that organize worldviews among members of diverse communities of scientific practice, often rendering members’ knowledge as observable, measurable, or otherwise credible. 1 [End Page 151]

In the present discussion, we take the reader into a kind of liminal world that working scientists routinely construct through linguistic and graphic means. In this world, scientists engaged in collaborative interpretive activity transport themselves by means of talk and gesture into constructed visual representations through which they journey with their words and their bodies. In so doing, they symbolically experience the same physical processes conventionally indexed by representations of past, future, or hypothetical experimental procedures.

Visual representations are treated through this collaborative interpretive activity as stages on which scientists dramatize understandings of their own and others’ work. In these scientific dramas the participants take on a variety of roles, including set designer, author, director, actor, protagonist, and audience. As set designers, for example, members of a laboratory may journey through a previously constructed figure without disturbing its design, but more usually they transform such a figure by redrawing it for present purposes, annotating parts of it with a pencil or piece of chalk, and/or superimposing figures representing other scientific work. As “set designs,” then, visual representations are not treated passively, as fixed, “immutable” objects, 2 but rather are reauthored visually and conceptually in light of understandings-in-progress within the moment-to-moment interaction of a laboratory. In this paper we explore how, when scientists journey through representations, they create an intertextual space in which the identities of scientist-as-subject and constructed-scientific-world-as-object are deconstructed and reconstructed as a single blended identity.

Background to the Study

Our observations are drawn from an ongoing study of a physics research group located in a large American university whose weekly meetings we videotaped for six months. The group’s work is in the general area of condensed matter physics—more specifically, in the subfield of spin glasses and other random magnetic systems. At their weekly meetings, the most prevalent activity is the presentation of work-in-progress, incorporating visual representations of many kinds, such as blackboard sketches, overhead transparencies, computer printouts, and other printed matter. For long stretches of interaction, members lean graphs on a table or gesture toward a blackboard sketch while they think through their findings. It is [End Page 152] through this multimodal, distributed discursive activity that these physicists narrate their scientific stories and journey through graphic space and other constructed worlds.

Role-Taking on Representational Stages

Constructing and journeying through visual representations is a collective activity involving laboratory members in different roles at different interactional moments. In some moments, for example, one member may choreograph a coauthored narrative journey while a second member enacts it: 3


       ((resting head on right hand)) Now let’s just s-

(.)      take your finger and start abo:ve (.) the the::

      upper transition line. Student:      Yes. ((Student



board)) PI:          You’re going to say I’m in the

paramagnetic state Student:    [Mm hm? (( turns to

Ron))      [((vertical

headshakes)) PI:      Just draw your line. ((Student

turns to board)) Student:    [Okay:. (  )      [((moves

finger from

a to b))

* PI is an abbreviation for Principal Investigator

[1] RO LAB (1–3)

At other times, one participant both choreographs and enacts a journey to dramatize his or her own version of scientific events to an audience of other laboratory members:

  Student:    [And let me tell you (0.2)

there’s something (.)

      [((moves toward board; adjusts glasses))

      mo:re I

can say: mtsk is [that that (0.2) those gu-

              [((points to

j))            that dynamics starts (0.5) not at the moment you

      [reach this point (0...