Memory and the construction of scientific meaning: Michael Faraday's use of notebooks and recordsby R. D. Tweney, C. D. Ayala

Memory Studies


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DOI: 10.1177/1750698015587149

Memory and the construction of scientific meaning: Michael

Faraday’s use of notebooks and records

Ryan D Tweney

Bowling Green State University, USA

Christopher D Ayala

Cisco Systems, Inc., USA


Research examining the relationship between external artifacts and scientific thinking has highlighted the dynamic role of memory aids. This article explores how the nineteenth-century physicist Michael Faraday (1791–1867) used extensive laboratory notebooks and a highly structured set of retrieval strategies as dynamic aids during his scientific research. The development and dynamic use of memory artifacts are described as part of a distributed, “real-world,” cognitive environment. The processes involved are then related to aspects of expert memory and to the use of model-based reasoning in science. The system demonstrates the importance of epistemic artifacts in scientific cognition and is suggestively related to other cognitive artifacts used in scientific research that rely on similar cognitive processes.

Keywords distributed cognition, external memory, memory, Michael Faraday, mnemonics, model-based reasoning, psychology of science, representation in science, retrieval

In recent years, a number of studies have appeared in which the nature of cognitive artifacts has been an essential part of accounts of cognition “in the wild” (Hutchins, 1995). This study uses a cognitive-historical framework (Tweney, 2013) to describe an external memory system in a scientific historical setting. We take advantage of a rich archival source to illuminate the way in which the construction of a scientific paper used memory retrieval artifacts to construct meaning.

Previous studies of artifact use have used both historical and contemporary settings to investigate how artifacts have been used in scientific cognition. Rheinberger (1997) explored the genesis and use

Corresponding author:

Ryan D Tweney, Psychology Department, Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, OH 43403, USA.

Email: 587149 MSS0010.1177/1750698015587149Memory StudiesTweney and Ayala research-article2015

Article at University of New England on July 18, 2015mss.sagepub.comDownloaded from 2 Memory Studies of protein synthesis techniques among molecular biologists, and Nersessian (2008) examined the use of constructed models of “flow cells” in a bioengineering laboratory. Replications of historical techniques extended the analysis of artifacts used in scientific thinking to historical domains, a kind of “experimental ethnography” (e.g. Cavicchi, 2003; Gooding, 1990; Staubermann, 2011; Tweney, 2004). Similar analyses using replication have examined some of the epistemic artifacts used by

Michael Faraday (1791–1867) during the conduct of his experimental research (Tweney, 2006).

Historians of science have analyzed the role of laboratory notebooks as epistemic artifacts for a number of scientists (Holmes et al., 2003). We extend these analyses by examining the research notebooks and memory aids kept by Michael Faraday (1791–1867). While some aspects of these devices have been described (see, for example, Gooding, 1990; Tweney, 1991; Tweney and

Gooding, 1991), here we emphasize their role as epistemic artifacts. That is, such aids, like

Faraday’s apparatus and specimens, were cognitive devices whose use went beyond the stereotypical role of notebooks as passive repositories of factual information; they were instead essential parts of a creative process.

It is clear that human memory is more than just a record of “facts” (Bartlett, 1932). Not only have various distinct memory storage functions been explored (e.g. Tulving, 1983) but also generative aspects of information storage have been evaluated. Ericsson and Kintsch (1995) argued that experts in a domain (but not novices or beginners) rely on the use of specialized retrieval structures, allowing highly organized material to be integrated and used, a “long-term working memory.” The external storage and retrieval systems used by Faraday are similarly specialized and served to integrate and organize the vast amount of material recorded in his notebooks.

A laboratory notebook does of course need to be a recording of “facts.” Just as we expect a telephone directory to be “factual,” we also expect a scientist’s records of experiments to be “factual.” However, Faraday’s notebooks were used in a fashion that extended their chronological ordering of factual material. We show that they were accompanied by a set of dynamic retrieval devices that played a central role in his thinking and writing. His laboratory notebooks were part of an elaborately distributed memory system with a richly interactive set of user routines, a kind of

Babbage-era hypertext.

Our examination of Faraday’s external memory complements and extends studies of “memory aids” (e.g. Hertel, 1993; Neisser and Winograd, 1988). Hutchins (1995) analyzed the performance of an airplane cockpit as a cognitive system, showing that crucial relations between aircraft speed and status during landing maneuvers require a dynamically updated system to remember and display speed and other information—the cockpit is an active rememberer and thus plays an active role in landing an airplane. Similarly, in describing the organizational principles that underlie office filing systems, Norman (1993) noted that the vertical filing cabinet depended for its success upon a variety of artifacts that permit information to be structured—artifacts such as labeled tabs, standardized paper sizes, and xerographic copying processes. One of Faraday’s major needs was for an organizational principle and a set of finding artifacts that permitted him to overcome the sheer size of his data base. But, size aside, he creatively explored dynamic modes of organization and processing of the material. We seek to characterize these modes and to chart their role in Faraday’s work.