FT 05-Q From Observation to Understanding – The Role of Models in our Thinking
Scott Feller and David Maharry, Department of Chemistry and Department of Math/Computer Science
When we think of an atom, with protons and neutrons in the center and electrons surrounding it, we are using a model to help us understand the physical world. We are often aware of our models when we think of scientific ideas but we are also using models when we talk of our national economy or of red states and blue states in elections. The development of such explanatory models to describe the world around us is thus a central goal of inquiry. Features of these models may include real objects representing a complex system or some aspect of it, mathematical formulae representing the system in terms of a set of numerical values, representational systems such as maps or diagrams, and conceptual descriptions that may not include any quantitative relations whatsoever. At the most basic level, however, a model is simply an idea that allows us to create explanations of how we think some part of the world works. This development of models is very much a human endeavor, dependent on the creativity of the mind and its ability to recognize patterns, but also subject to prejudices and the limits of our sensory inputs. In this course we will look at the construction and application of a wide variety of models with the goal of obtaining a deeper understanding of the process of discovery.