Scientific modelling with diagrams

Ulrich E Stegmann* (Corresponding Author)

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

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Diagrams can serve as representational models in scientific research, yet important questions remain about how they do so. I address some of these questions with a historical case study, in which diagrams were modified extensively in order to elaborate an early hypothesis of protein synthesis. The diagrams’ modelling role relied mainly on two features: diagrams were modified according to syntactic rules, which temporarily replaced physico-chemical reasoning, and diagram-to-target inferences were based on semantic interpretations. I then explore the lessons for the relative roles of syntax, semantics, external marks, and mental images, for justifying diagram-to-target inferences, and for the “artefactual approach” to scientific models.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2675-2694
Number of pages20
Early online date13 May 2019
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2021

Bibliographical note

An earlier version of this paper was presented at two workshops in 2016 (“Many Methods, One Biology?”, Munich, and “Representing Scientific Results”, Kassel). I thank participants for stimulating discussions. Special thanks to Christian Joas, Tilmann Massey, Robert Meunier, Kärin Nickelsen, and Raphael Scholl. I would also like to acknowledge the helpful comments by three anonymous reviewers. Springer/Nature and Elsevier granted permissions to reproduce copyrighted material.

Data Availability Statement

The online version of this article (
019-02239-0) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.


  • Representational models
  • Mental images
  • Notation
  • Mechanism
  • Physical models
  • Syntactic symbol manipulation
  • George Gamow
  • Francis Crick
  • Protein synthesis


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