We are born to ask questions of the world.
It is something every parent understands as they live through
that magical time when their child begins to explore, to express
interest in the world, and to talk. Curiosity is a human biological
Science is an art form that provides an environment
for curiosity to flourish and ultimately lead to understanding.
It is also the only such art form that allows predictions
to be made of fundamental ideas concerning the workings of
the universe, and provides for the rigorous testing
of those predictions.
Modeling enables science, and more generally,
all human exploration. It’s as if the human brain is
wired to create models in order for us to truly comprehend
the greater universe and our own existence, and allow us to
proceed through that existence in a way that is comfortable.
Not convinced? Look around you and see if you’ve
immersed yourself in models. The globe of Earth on your desk,
the map in your car, the doll in your daughter’s room,
and the toy car in the playroom are obvious. But what about
all the photographs of friends and family? They are models
of the real thing. They are visualizations that allow you
to see what you would have seen if you were looking at the
real thing when those photos were taken (figure
Your phone and your answering machine create
synthesized models of voices and sounds of a distant place.
Do you watch television? It provides digital models of unfolding
events both fictitious and real. You might have even gone
to the movies and seen a period piece set in some long gone
era. The movie is as much a model as likely all the furniture,
the clothes, and the streetscapes created at the director’s
whim to help carry the believability of the story. How about
the Saturday morning cartoons, and the movies from Pixar that
you saw with your 3-year old? From the first frame through
the credits, the whole movie is a computer-generated model
of a world both recognizable and strange (figure
Now for your check book—it’s a spreadsheet,
a mathematical model of the ebb and flow of your financial
worth. The dollar bills and change in your pocket are conceptual
models in a physical wrapper that can be used to purchase
goods and services that have attached costs. And the cost
of a service is a conceptual model of its net value.
But it doesn’t stop there. All of civilization
is based on modeling, from the stock market, to economic forecasting,
to weather forecasting (figure
c), to databases for anything and everything that
can be put in a database, to the equations that provide our
understanding of the very laws of nature.
Maybe these last few paragraphs have even made
an impression on you. I did it with words and a set of rules
by which we string them together. The written word is an elegant,
and complex model of what I would have said to you if we were
in the room together. I’ll even go one further. Spoken
language is the means by which we model our very thoughts,
and impart those thoughts to others.
There are those things around us that are the
very essence of reality. There are also those things around
us that we have constructed both literally and figuratively
to make the essence of reality comprehensible. If we surround
ourselves with these models in order to make the familiar
world livable, imagine their power for the explorer that is
set to embark into the unknown. He or she might be an astrophysicist
studying black hole physics using the equations of general
d), an engineer developing carbon nanotube technologies
based on a model of the carbon atom (figure
e), a molecular biologist studying HIV using viral
adaptation models (figure
f), or a 10 year old in a science class studying
flavors of atoms using the Periodic Table (figure
Models don’t make the world go round.
But they do make it understandable.