The Monist

Volume 97, Issue 3, July 2014

Models and Simulations

Pages 280-300

Magnets, Spins, and Neurons: The Dissemination of Model Templates Across Disciplines

One of the most conspicuous features of contemporary modeling practices is the dissemination of mathematical and computational methods across disciplinary boundaries. We study this process through two applications of the Ising model: the Sherrington–Kirkpatrick model of spin glasses and the Hopfield model of associative memory. The Hopfield model successfully transferred some basic ideas and mathematical methods originally developed within the study of magnetic systems to the field of neuroscience. As an analytical resource we use Paul Humphreys’s discussion of computational and theoretical templates. We argue that model templates are crucial for the intra- and interdisciplinary theoretical transfer. A model template is an abstract conceptual idea associated with particular mathematical forms and computational methods.