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A Semiotic Analysis of the Disciplinary Affordances of the Hertzsprung-Russell Diagram in Astronomy.
Uppsala University, Disciplinary Domain of Science and Technology, Physics, Department of Physics and Astronomy, Physics Didactics. (Physics Education Research)
Uppsala University, Disciplinary Domain of Science and Technology, Physics, Department of Physics and Astronomy, Physics Didactics. (Physics Education Research)
2014 (English)Conference paper, Presentation (Refereed)
Abstract [en]

One of the central characteristics of disciplines is that they create their own particular ways of knowing the world through their discourse (Airey & Linder 2009). This process is facilitated by the specialization and refinement of disciplinary-specific semiotic resources over time. Nowhere is this truer than in the sciences, where it is the norm that disciplinary-specific representations have been introduced and then refined by a number of different actors (Airey 2009). As a consequence, many of the semiotic resources used in the sciences today still retain some traces of their historical roots. This makes the aquisition of disciplinary literacy (Airey, 2013) particularly problematic (see Eriksson et al. 2014 for an example from astronomy).

 In this paper we analyse one such disciplinary-specific semiotic resource from the field of Astronomy—the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram. We audit the potential of this semiotic resource to provide access to disciplinary knowledge—what Fredlund et al (2012) have termed its disciplinary affordances. Our analysis includes consideration of the use of scales, labels, symbols, sizes and colour. We show how, for historical reasons, the use of these aspects in the resource may differ from what might be expected by a newcomer to the discipline.

We suggest that some of the issues we highlight in our analysis may, in fact, be contributors to alternative conceptions and therefore propose that lecturers pay particular attention to the disambiguation of these features for their students.



Airey, J. (2013). Disciplinary Literacy. In E. Lundqvist, L. Östman & R. Säljö (Eds.), Scientific literacy – teori och praktik (pp. 41-58): Gleerups.

Airey, J. (2009). Science, Language and Literacy. Case Studies of Learning in Swedish University Physics. Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis. Uppsala Dissertations from the Faculty of Science and Technology 81. Uppsala  Retrieved 2009-04-27, from

Airey, J., & Linder, C. (2009). A disciplinary discourse perspective on university science learning: Achieving fluency in a critical constellation of modes. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 46(1), 27-49.

Eriksson, U., Linder, C., Airey, J., & Redfors, A. (2014). Who needs 3D when the Universe is flat? Science Education, 98(3), 412-442.

Fredlund, T., Airey, J., & Linder, C. (2012). Exploring the role of physics representations: an illustrative example from students sharing knowledge about refraction. European Journal of Physics, 33, 657-666.


Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
Aarhus: Aarhus University , 2014. 22- p.
Keyword [en]
Hertzsprung-Russell diagram, Disciplinary affordance, Disciplinary literacy, semiiotics, undergraduate learning
National Category
Research subject
Physics with specialization in Physics Education
URN: urn:nbn:se:uu:diva-224432OAI: diva2:716721
The 5th International 360 Conference. Encompassing the multimodality of knowledge, May 8-10 2014, Aarhus University, Denmark
Swedish Research Council
Available from: 2014-05-12 Created: 2014-05-12 Last updated: 2014-11-11Bibliographically approved

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