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Student B.S. Engineering, Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art


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How can computer models help us build intuition?

The use of visual diagrams to explain and understand difficult concepts is as old as history itself, but in the twentieth century, for the first time, engineers and scientists were able to enlist the help of computational tools to represent systems with greater clarity and detail. While computers, with the right peripherals, are able to present data to all the senses, in two or three dimensions and through time, perhaps their greatest pedagogical virtue is their interactivity. People learn by doing: young children internalize Newton's Laws long before their first formal physics class by manipulating the world around them. Computers offer the promise of similar interactivity for systems which are less readily accessible, or even entirely esoteric. In my Bioelectricity class, for example, we have been using computer simulations of the complicated Hodgkin-and-Huxley membrane equations to gain insight into neural reactions to various experimental stimuli. How can computer models be used to learn, understand and ultimately build intuition about systems in nature and science?


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  • S Lam

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    Feb 17 2012: Not sure if this question is appropriate but why would we want computers to have intuition? Why can't computer advancements aim at being better tools to us, humans who have intuition and not try to supersede us? Isn't the goal of making tools (including technological ones) is to make our lives and our existence on earth better and less destructive?
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      Feb 20 2012: Hi S Lam,
      The issue isn't that we need computers to have intuition. It is so that we can use technology in order to develop our own intuition. If you watch this TED talk about how complexity leads to simplicity: http://www.ted.com/talks/eric_berlow_how_complexity_leads_to_simplicity.html , you'll see that breaking down complex models is actually less cumbersome than originally thought. However, what is important is that Eric Berlow has had multiple dealings with such issues so that he has developed an intuitive sense as to where patterns may emerge. This intuition definitely wasn't something that he one day woke up; it is something that was developed over time. And he wasn't alone on stage; he used technology to map out the web of complexities. We do not need computers to have intuition; we simply need them to provide us with models that simplify complex ideas so that we develop a certain feel, an intuition, regarding the topic in order to make our lives like you said better and less destructive.

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