Josh Mayourian

Student , Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art


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Will we ever truly be able to model nature?

My Bioelectricity professor Nina Tandon recently gave a TED talk “Caring for engineered tissue” and I was amazed how we are able to copy the environment of artificially grown cells. There are many techniques used to reduce error and create accurate results. Such amazing replications allow us to grow artificial hearts and bones, enhancing research opportunities on these
parts of the body. This made me wonder how successful we are at modeling
other living systems, so I watched the TED talk “Robert Full on engineering and evolution.” Many years ago, engineer's claimed bees shouldn't be able to fly, dolphins shouldn’t be able to swim, and geckos shouldn't be able to climb from their calculations. However, in the past few years we've been able to explain these phenomenons, showing how much we have progressed. Through watching these great talks, I was curious: How close are we to modeling nature and making predictions without ideal assumptions? Will we ever be able to reach this point and truly copy nature?

  • E Pines

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    Mar 7 2012: Some 32 years ago, Prof. Stephan Berko of Brandeis University introduced his Quantum Mechanics course with the following question: “Why do we know that there is a law of conservation of energy (or more generally, ‘mass’ – combined matter and energy)?” After patiently listening to my class’s answers, he responded that they were all wrong. “We do not know logically that there is such a law, rather we perceive the same pattern repeatedly, so we assume such a law.” It was a seminal insight.

    The “theory of everything” or TOE remains a myth even as the ever-growing plethora of multidimensional “string” models in physics vie for this holy grail. Even where predicting aspects of perceived reality beyond those upon which it was predicated, a TOE certainly doesn’t account for itself. It is claimed that the “ultimately” refined “true” TOE will be shown to require itself. A physical object turned in a complete circle will come back into itself, a cleverly constructed circular logic would do the same for a TOE. It would be worse than meaningless, however, as now that circular logic created would need explanation by the TOE. Further, the notion that translating perception into theorem creates any new information at all, much less complete knowledge, is plain wrong. [Even in pure mathematics! – see Gregory Chaitin’s “Omega and why maths has no TOEs,” at:]

    No theory could deal with “Everything” unless it contained it, and only Infinity itself can do this. Absolute Infinity, however, has no definition, no boundaries, no rules, and so no exclusions. There can be no laws of chance, no laws of causality, but therefore, certainly no TOE.

    Our goal then must be to perceive with greater accuracy and ever improve model. The true possibility to the next step in this is the joining of Humanity as a whole, a single mind like natural communities in Nature.. The Internet and true mutual responsibility may be all that we need.
    • Mar 7 2012: Great analysis E Pines.

      One thing I'd like to do is address the last overlying question Josh asks above: "Will we ever be able to reach this point and truly copy nature?"

      And the question I have for this is, "What is the intention for wanting to do so?"

      Because since civilizations beginnings man has built collective stories, throughout all the various cultures of the world, which distance mankind from Nature, pit us above her, or in some eternal struggle against her.

      So, it seems that if we are to come to copy Nature then we will have to resolve this outlook. And that's where new education can come into the picture: To wipe away the old myths we have about Nature and each other.

      And like E Pines says, "... the next step in this is the joining of Humanity as a whole, a single mind like natural communities in Nature." And that's another fundamental element that can't be separated from the search to copy Nature.

      So I think that the first step in this process, of wanting to copy Nature, is proceeding according to how we see Nature operate: As an all inclusive system. And from my perspective, we are the only ones out of balance in this system.

      So if we want to copy Nature (and yes please), then we must learn to adapt ourselves to Nature. And, given our collective history as a species, this doesn't come naturally to us. We need new education, devised with the goal of, "adapting us to Nature," to be created and then distributed to everyone (so not just education for children or young adults; but for everyone, since it takes a united humanity to come into balance, or to copy Nature).
  • Mar 7 2012: Our possibilities to copy nature as engineers will always be limited no matter how well quipped and knowledgeable we are as long as our sole motivation is the use of nature for our own narrow self benefit. In that case we can also expect, as Sohelia commented, that our acts and products of engineering will also cause damage: Since we don't see the picture as a whole and are not capable to perceive and capture how nature works as an integral one system, by manipulating parts of nature we will necessarily harm other parts of it. Genetic engineering had proved so not once. Therefor, it seems that our only chance to truly model nature lies on a different level of understanding or more accurately on a different, higher level of consciousnesses: Only when we will be able to transform ourselves, our qualities, our minds and hearts, to those which resemble the force of nature, the upper thought or force, shall we be able to truly model nature. The principle of "equalizing of form" is a basic principle in spiritual methodologies. It tells us that by changing ourselves, our egoistic nature, we acquire new sense and intelligent and can gradually adhere to the upper force of nature. When we shall reach that state we will be able to exist in full harmony and balance with ourselves and with nature and maybe will not need to engineer nature at all...
  • Mar 7 2012: Will we ever be able to truly model nature?

    The answer to this, in my view, depends entirely on one's intention.

    The infiniteness of nature is something that science has yet to fully reveal. Every time the microscope reaches to further smallness, the complexity grows, and every time the macroscope reaches further, the seeming limits increase.

    Perhaps science serves one better when it asks a different question: What is nature? That nature's forms have continually eluded our greatest technologies throughout all history, and its integrally intermingled and intertwined systems are so beautifully interdependent that mankind cannot predict its effects, begs a different question and a different application of science that better serves all of our global human family and our wondrous Universe.
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    Mar 1 2012: One issue is modeling... another is the degree to which the models are accurate... and a third is how far out they remain accurate to some agreed-upon degree -- and when the Butterfly Effect makes them useless. The problem in modeling is feedback loops which amplify small divergences into enormous ones. Sometimes these are major factors (as in weather forecasting) and sometimes there are no divergences (as in modeling the acceleration of a falling apple). The real issue is knowing the characteristics of the aspect of our natural world we're trying to model...... We might reflect that all models are *approximations* and *simplifications* of reality and therefore there's a difference between the more comprehensible model and the incomprehensibility of the more variegated reality being modeled. The only exact model of the universe would be an exactly identical universe... and what use would that be, even if it were possible.....
    • Mar 1 2012: Thomas
      Thank you for this comment and you actually wrote what I was going to say. Lorenz was correct, simple dependence on initial conditions is always how the model turns out something "similar." But is finally similar not exact. I laugh sometimes at the "5-day forecast". Ok sometimes they are right, but sometimes, you just want to say turn off the computer and look out the window. A great answer to this very good question.

      Josh, I think we approximate well a number of things. non-linear dynamics says I think, good job, but you forgot this little tweak.
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        Mar 1 2012: Thomas and Michael,

        Using Runge-Kutta methods when programming to approximate, we are able to estimate very well, but only in an ideal setting. Nature is far from an ideal setting. Therefore, I totally agree with you, as nature is so complex that changes would occur in a way that no approximation method used will be able to model perfectly.
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      Mar 2 2012: I agree that we could get close to accuracy, but what would be the point? Getting near accuracy is good enough in most cases-- in engineering we make assumptions so often-- linearity, frictionless, causal...all these things which help us vastly to come up with solutions to natural problems, without needing to truly imitate those natural phenomena.
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        Mar 7 2012: There seem to be two directions that this question is being attacked. One from the point of view of whether or not we can create a model for how nature works, how molecules interact to produce the visible results we see in our daily lives. The second is to look at specific instances of how we can use materials to mimic the properties of nature. I will attempt to answer the latter question. In my tissue engineering class as well as my biomechanics class we have been shown over and over again, whether it be a replacement for a material replacement for a tendon or an artificial knee replacement, these artificial replacements cannot match up to those of the native tissues they are replacing. For example, while we might be able to find a material that is capable of reproducing a single material property of the native tendon for example elasticity, the replacements will always fail with respect to a different material property for example strength. To this end, tissue engineering takes as an assumption that in order to truly model a native tissue from the body or in nature in general, the material must be made up for the most part of the same constituent parts as the native one. The question then becomes not finding a material that matches the properties, but rather a set of environmental conditions which will allow a living tissue to grow and gain the same material properties as the native tissue.
        • W T

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          Mar 7 2012: I replied to your comment on being human (it did not have a reply button and your email isn't accessible).....I will come back to erase this one in a few minutes.

    • Mar 6 2012: Hello Thomas,

      I agree that every model is inherently a simplification of reality. Certainly, this is acceptable for most applications. Going back to the weather example, it is usually not completely devastating if the meteorologist tells us that it’s going to rain in the morning but it actually rains in the evening. But, what about tissue engineering applications, to which Josh referred in his original question? Is an approximate model of human tissue sufficient in the in vitro cultivation of tissues and organs for implantation? Of course, due to various technological limitations, tissue engineers will probably never be able to copy nature exactly. Still, it seems that an “almost perfect” imitation of nature is required in tissue engineering. To maximize the chances that a laboratory-grown transplant will successfully integrate into a human body, the transplant should be an exact match to the tissue or organ that it was grown to mimic.
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        Mar 6 2012: In my view, the best way to be successful at modeling is first to accept that you can't make a model with infinite accuracy and precision--That's why it's called a model. Next, you have to carefully decide which assumptions you're willing to make, and you have to justify them. Ideally, you should be able to quantify the error: "You should get the right answer within 15%", for example, so that the results are unequivocal, not to be misconstrued as an exact representation, but also not to be disregarded as a mere guess. Of course, it so many disciplines such as biology and economics, the systems are so complex that the error propagation quickly blows up.

        My question regards the areas in which we currently have good models, and the areas in which we can use models to make the jump from science and discovery to engineering and design. In medicine, for example, researchers have been using animal models for years and years. However at this point, and correct me if I'm wrong, few computational models are at the point where we where we would base the treatment of a patient on model results.

        In Electrical Engineering, however, we have fantastic modeling software that will model many, many types of circuits with very good accuracy. In my engineering design classes, I've used models to get a good idea of what a good design might be, and then gone through iterations of trial and error in the lab before making the final product. But some VLSI circuits are not so easy to test in the lab, and designers heavily rely on simulations.

        When, if ever, will we make the leap from pure discovery to design and implementation using computational modeling of complex systems like weather, medicine, ecology, economics....
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        Mar 6 2012: As Veronica said, I think that the level of accuracy that we need for a model truly depends on the situation or system we are trying to understand. Sometimes a model does not even need to be accurate to teach an idea. Although the lock and key model of an enzyme reaction has long been disproved, it is still the way that the concept is initially introduced to students because of the relationship and parallel they can draw to everyday life. Once that idea is understood, instructors proceed to inform their students that the model approximates more of an induced fit process rather than a perfect one to one connection.
  • Mar 7 2012: Question: Why build a model when the real thing exists?
    An answer: Because we can't perform experiments on the real thing (eg for ethical reasons) or because we can't use it to predict the future.

    It follows that: the model has to have more properties than the real thing, such as the ability to run it forward in time, or be subject to changed or postulated conditions. Therefore the model has to be in some way different to the real thing (not just a copy), as well as subject to the limitations of the human modeller and the modelling process. This is not to say that based on our (albeit inadequate) modelling abilities as humans, we couldn't invent or engineer something that is more useful and in some sense better than the real thing. Nor is it to deny the possibility that for physical and some biological processes we might build models that capture all their essential properties. But given that we are humans and the entire natural world is the product of 6 bn years of evoluton (or a God or a combination of both) then its hardly likely that one generation of us will be ablle to build a complete model of nature. We can already copy it and sex is more fun anyway.
  • Mar 6 2012: "According to engineer’s calculations..."

    Not to detract from the insightful and interesting comments so far but I do have to ask, has anyone else looked into this claim? I feel that this discussion is great and I've enjoyed reading every one's opinions but I do feel that we are doing the pursuit of science and ourselves a disservice in accepting that quotation at face value.

    We actually have an increasingly good understanding of how bees fly, geckos stick, and dolphins swim. There have been many interesting and exciting advances in these areas which sadly are not always widely publicised. Myths like these are perpetuated in the popular consciousness in part because people never hear about advances and assume none have been made.

    But advances have been made and continue to be made. For instance, the realization that air viscosity is different on the insect scale in combination with high speed photography at Caltech has us well on our way to modeling the bee. Want to know how geckos stick, check out the work at Lewis & Clark College's gecko lab it's neat stuff. As for dolphins according to the math being unable to swim, that notion was proposed in the 1930's and we've come a long way in our understanding since then.

    There is nothing wrong with saying we don't know how something works yet, that is exciting, that means there is something more to discover, that is the heart of science, but myths like these are harmful.

    Countless people have worked really hard to get us to our current level of understanding. So please lets continue the discussion but perhaps we can take a moment to give credit where credit is due.
    • Mar 7 2012: I was just about to write a similar response to Brendan, I am in complete agreement.

      I would also add that discoveries in the field of mathematics with regards Chaos theory and the more popularly known 'Butterfly effect' mean that we can now prove, mathematically, that it is nigh on impossible to predict complex systems present in nature, unpredictability is wired into their very fabric. What I find amazing about this is that, instead of predicting nature in the way that so many hoped we could given enough information and computing power, we can now prove mathematically exactly why we will never be able to predict complex systems present in nature with any degree of certainty and even more remarkably still we have been able to go one further and use this to explain the extraordinary variety present in nature, as the 'Mandelbrot set' visualisations eloquently describe.

      To conclude I think that human understanding has advanced so rapidly in these fields that the questions raised by Josh are no longer relevant.

      In short, to answer Josh's question - 'No' and it's likely that we never will with any degree of accuracy ...and here's the maths that explains why!
  • Mar 6 2012: As to the general question, of course we can model nature. How accurate our model will be will of course depend on the scale of representation and what we seek to accomplish. The good news is that we don't actually have to form a complete model of the universe to understand how that model functions: general laws and principles can be used to give us (at least as ceteris paribus definitions) laws that allow us to generalize phenomenon: often to a degree where we can find the specific mechanics involved. Once we have the general rules, we can apply them to a specific circumstance and (if our model is more or less accurate) we can describe the phenomenon as it will occur.

    However,we DO know (or at least, have a very strong idea) of how bees fly, dolphins swim, and geckos climb. Some quick links that I found with a brief Google search:

    Bees flying:

    Dolphins swimming:

    Geckos climbing:

    There are some mysteries out there, but these are often touted as areas that “science has failed to solve,” which first, isn't indicative of the process of science and second, isn't factually true. In cases where science has not yet penetrated a phenomenon and discovered an adequate rule or set of rules to describe how the phenomenon occurs, that doesn't actually indicate a problem with our ability to model but rather indicates that we have not yet modelled the phenomenon accurately. If we believe ourselves to have a complete model and something is still unexplained, that may indicate a flaw with our model, it may indicate we are asking the wrong sort of question, or it may indicate that we are mistaken about a general principle of the phenomenon in question. In any of these cases, it doesn't indicate that we cannot, in principle, model the phenomenon.
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    Mar 6 2012: My question is why we are trying to model nature, why we want to do the nature's job. In one hand we destroy it and on the other hand we want to model it, to copy it, to do something like it and finally to fix it . who are we? We are just part of it.
    Is it time to leave the nature alone and let it do its job? not to destroy it, no to copy it and not to model it.
    • Mar 6 2012: I think the answer is that it is incredibly useful to have an accurate model of nature. If I want to know how to stop a building from being demolished by an earthquake or a tornado, I need an accurate idea (or model) of how earthquakes and tornadoes generally cause their damage.

      There are a lot of things in the world that could be better, and we want them to be better. In the end, that requires accurate information, which can be expressed in terms of models, as well as the general rules used to build those models.

      So I guess my answer is that we model nature because we hope to use the rules we find to improve our lives and the lives of others around us: cure disease, improve the quality of food, build structures, the list goes on.
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        Mar 7 2012: It's interesting the two different effects of modeling nature you both discuss. In a different post, Soheila, you bring up a very important negative result of our knowledge being applied to nature (pollution). However, Anthony discusses how modeling nature can lead to resolving some of the greatest problems faced by individuals.

        This theme of effects of modeling nature seems like a great topic, and I'd love to hear more people's views on this!
        • Mar 7 2012: My thoughts would be that we as humans must exercise our ability of freewill as a core part of our human nature. Our ability to grow knowledge is secondary, yet equally as important since we are too far into history to just 'walk away and pretend like nothing happened'.

          So, if we are to grow our ability of freewill (choice), some would say that we must first have knowledge of good and evil, right and wrong, correct and incorrect etc.

          Surely though, growing our willpower to choose good, right, correct choices that will be best for the planet and the human species as a whole, does not require us to experiment with every other option until our resources are exhausted.

          Hmmmm.... perhaps this all sounds more like gospel than ideas, but will there ever be a time in history where humankind will become perfect? And what would humankind do with the key of life if it became ours? If we were able to replicate and manipulate any aspect of nature, would we use it for good or evil? Creation or destruction?
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    Mar 3 2012: I don't think we will, Josh but I am not daunted by that because it is already there for us to view, imitate and be inspired by. in the attempt though, I think we will learn astounding amounts.
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      Mar 5 2012: Agreed. To me, a perfect model of nature would be one that evolves with time. In order to do this, we must be able to accurately predict evolutionary changes. Seeing that it has taken nature billions of years to get us where we are, I don't see how we would be able to mimic this evolution in models that we create.

      Looking back from our vantage point, we might be able to reason why some developments happened; we can logic and think our way through them. However, what nature did was different; evolution seemed more or less like a "go with the flow" kind of process. There was no real thought process or brain power behind it, it just happened, maybe instinctively. I think this difference alone is enough to set us apart from nature - nature always seems to be one step ahead of us without thinking, while we think and struggle only to make less than perfect imitations of what nature has already provided.
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    Mar 1 2012: I think the fact we abuse the reductive -> deductive process in science makes us miss out of a lot of realities...

    I read an interesting article a while ago about the difference between the metaphysics of the East and West in historical fashions. The author suggested that in the West we dominated primarily on the idea matter is static - matter is constantly the same. While in the East they developed the idea of Chi into their matter - matter is constantly changing.

    Recently Alfred Whitehead coined the term "process philosophy" yet this idea of philosophy is evidently not new. The idea that "all is change" is an ancient one from Heraclitus. Less ancient would be the Chan Buddhist or Zen Buddhism.

    We can "copy" nature, but we need to seriously change our methods. Einstein had to create practical geometry in order to conclude relativity theory. Indeed we are all not creative-academic geniuses, but 3 or 4 or 10 minds can do what one man could never do today with our amount of information.

    We need fuzzy logic and process philosophy as our primary tools of interpreting nature (reality), just like the ancients suggested, just new vocabulary and new methods. Look at how much psychology is going in circles due to lack of new methods...

    We still seriously believe there is one intelligence rather than multiple (in the majority) and such phrases as "you are intelligent" cripple our interpretation of others, because we are all intelligent in something; even if it's building a car from scratch or creating a theorem.

    Finally, education needs to change... Filling little kids up with useless facts is child abuse to me... Because it cripples them of learning how to think and being a true individual anarchist (Thoreau) - not this Generation Me crap I have to deal with in my age group.

    If all is change than we should be taught how to adapt perceive that change...which takes education; without training in the mental realm we are slaves to our physiology.

    Good topic.
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      Mar 1 2012: Nicholas,

      You bring up so many great ideas as to what methods we need to change in order to truly model nature. I have always felt strongly about the last point you make, and it was definitely something I was considering when posting this question. In my high school and middle school math and science classes, the goal was mainly to make sure one remembered and regurgitated ideas. I would take a class and forget everything I learned by the time the summer break was over!

      As an undergraduate engineering student, I have taken many math and science courses. However, the approach taken is very different to how it was in high school, and I've gotten to appreciate it greatly. There are so many derived formulas in courses, but professors don't find it vital for us to memorize them. They find it most important that we understand the basics, and are able to think to become true problem solvers. It's great that I now come out of classes remembering the basics, and always keeping the problem solving techniques that could apply to these topics and beyond. Hopefully one day we change the approach to education to advance even more than we are today. Did you have any specific educational experience leading you to such an idea?

      You also bring up "psychology is going in circles due to lack of new methods". Coming up with new methods is so challenging, yet it is essential for the ever changing nature around us. Psychology is one of the most difficult fields to experiment for, and going in circles shows that at least many different approaches and thoughts are being used in explaining phenomenons. Through enough experimentation, and creative methods, hopefully one day theories can be made in psychology and other fields that will not be dis-proven at all! Einstein took ideas that were yet to be dis-proven, and used those as basics. That is definitely a method taht should be used more.

      The background you give on metaphysics is a nice new piece of information. Thanks for the comment!
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        Mar 1 2012: As far as psychology it is the bad type of circling.... But you are right in a longer context. I still believe we are completely misguided on what intelligence is, and on that note personality.

        *Did you have any specific educational experience leading you to such an idea?

        Of course, my memory is terrible and anything past trig might as well be mandarin. I use to think something was wrong with me... But then I looked around and saw I was not alone, in fact I am a huge majority. Logical-math ability has been argued to be it's own intelligence... So we are literally educating on the grounds of one type of intelligence (maybe two, memory)...

        Children's minds are SUPER active as young as 2 - 4 because their physiology is telling them they need to adapt in this environment FAST to survive. If we taught kids how to think instead of dictating knowledge... We would have a generation of minds unlike ever before. Piaget is being acknowledged in education theory, but as far as applying his theories... No.

        thanks for the response.
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          Mar 1 2012: Nicholas,

          Thanks for sharing your own experience, and you definitely are not alone. You bring up a key point: certain educational values should be taught at a very young age. Hopefully we exploit that more to be able to accomplish some more amazing feats
  • W T

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    Mar 7 2012: I have been following this conversation for a while, too shy and lacking confidence in the topic to make a comment.

    But, after reading the last few entries I will say a little something.

    The first thing that came to mind about modeling nature is, well, nature is our tutor. Many of the wonderful designs in nature have made our life more "comfortable". In some cases even allowed us to do things we would never have soaring in the air while parasailing over the ocean......not that I would dare venture out.

    Also another thought.....even if we were able to truly model nature, the model would be man would require would break down eventually and we would have to give it maintanance, buy spare parts, oil it, or replace it with another new and improved version.

    This leads me to man's shortsightedness. Today, as we are aware from the conversation on GM products, some are not happy with nature's design. They have engineered!! Now can we really believe that a man made model of food, through engineering, will ever be as hearty and sustainable as the original? I don't know the answer.
    I can only hope that we will arrive at it somehow....hopefully before things get out of hand.

    And now one last thought, I posted this a while back on the TED talk about spiders.

    Man-made model: Kevlar is a tough man-made fiber used in such items as bulletproof vests. To manufacture Kevlar, high temperatures and hazardous solvents are required.

    Nature: Orb-weaving spiders produce seven types of silk. The sturdiest, known as dragline silk, is lighter than cotton yet, ounce for ounce, is stronger than steel and tougher than Kevlar. If enlarged to the size of a football field, a web of dragline silk 0.4 inch thick with strands 1.6 inches apart could stop a jumbo jet in flight! Spiders produce dragline silk at room temperature, using water as a solvent.

    Nature's design......JUST AWESOME!!!!!
  • Mar 7 2012: Bees Fly

    Dolphins Swim

    Geckos Climb

    This took less than 4 minutes on my phone, including perusal time, typing and submitting. Rather than look for upper constraints on knowledge, lets put a little more effort into dispelling popular misconceptions that impede the impetus for discovery.
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      Mar 7 2012: Theo,

      It's great to see that these problems have been solved, and shows the progress we have made. I watched a TED talk from many years back discussing these ideas, and it was a mistake not to check whether these problems have been solved yet. I will update the information above. From solving these problems in nature, biomimicry has had many great applications. Please do check out this link below!

      However, there are so many different examples of problems in nature we are yet to solve. I would love to hear your input regarding this question presented.
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    Mar 6 2012: I think we will never have a complete model, but we will always have useful models.

    There's a joke by standup comic Steven Wright: I have a map of the United States. It's actual size. It says "one mile equals one mile".

    A model is a simplification of nature. It must be complex enough to be meaningful but simple enough to be useful. The actual size map, is a model that perfectly matches the United States but it's of course useless.

    A model can be refuted and still prove very useful. We have decisively rejected the earth centered solar system, but in every day life, we use still use it: we say the sun rises and the sun sets. We have refuted Newtonian mechanics but we still use his model when designing cars, calculating ballistic trajectories, etc. It wouldn't be practical to use Einstein's model, unless of course we are dealing with extreme values, where Newton's model breaks down.
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    Mar 6 2012: The question posed is in need of a terminological clarification. This is because conceptually modelling is different from actually reproducing/copying nature. Better yet the former is the prior step to the latter, as the former deals mostly with our subjective/objective perception of nature, whilst the latter is a practical procedure that employs it in order to reproduce both the theorem and nature itself.

    On the first account of modelling, it will depend on the capacity of technology to produce ever more complex equipment to perform the calculations necessary to model natural systems (social systems are considered subsystems), as well as developments in mathematics and statistics. In this direction we are still quite far away from truly modelling nature due to the number of factors that we need to take into consideration.

    On the second account of copying I would say we are already very close. Technology, physics, chemistry and mechanics are already cooperating on many facets of replication of nature ranging from abstract general laws to real world events and objects. For the moment we are essentially able to copy nature by using alternative materials. It is within reason that at some point we will be able to exactly copy nature, as we are indeed striving to decode the underlying mechanisms linking its various components.
  • Mar 7 2012: Science is the study of physical phenomena, which may not be present in natural living things. For example, there are no animals that fly exactly the same as hot air balloons or rockets fly. But by experimenting, people have been able to observe trends and relationships. Engineering is the to application of scientific principals to generate solutions that satisfy human needs. So, we "model" nature, or physical phenomena, to better understand the world around us. Then we use these "models" to improve the human living condition. But, it is not necessary to exactly model phenomena in order to get benefit. Approximate models work just fine. It not even necessary to have any model,, the cut and try approach can work sometimes too. I think the important thing is to ask questions like "why does that happen" or "how can we do this better" or "would life be better if...".
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    Mar 7 2012: "If the physician understands things exactly and sees and recognizes all illnesses in the macrocosm outside man, and if he has a clear idea of man and his whole nature, then and only then is he a physician. Then he may approach the inside of man; then he may examine his urine, take his pulse, and understand where each thing belongs. This would not be possible without profound knowledge of the outer man, who is nothing other than heaven and earth.It would be bold and presumptuous to approach the study of man without such knowledge and to defend the sandy ground of speculation, which is more unstable than a reed in the wind" (Paracelsus)
  • Mar 7 2012: Hi, Nicolette!
    Yep, I was trying to track down that quote, seems first one to say that was George E.P.Box. Smart guy! I mean, it all ends up to what do we want from model? By definition it should be simplification of the system? If we are making exact copy, why simply not use the real thing?
  • Mar 7 2012: Well.... are we not a part of nature ourselves?

    I feel that in answering this question I am inclined to look to conclusions of a supernatural creator ("God") to account for the reasons that we have not yet replicated the process of forming diamond or gold.

    Yet, I also feel that you were not asking for a answer of the metaphysical type, but the purely physical type which possibly requires a different way of approaching the subject.

    Take diamond as an example though, we have not the resources or the expertise to create a perfectly flawed diamond - what we can do though is create a substitute with cubic zirconia. It will never will reach the point of truly copying diamond though, because each diamond in uniquely created and formed out of such scarce circumstances that we would be foolish to use our resources to imitate nature.

    Coming back to my introduction though, I rarely feel that I (personally) am not part of nature, and so to copy human nature in technology perhaps is more achievable. I feel that if we achieve this then it would be a small step until other parts of the created universe become copied in technology.

    First we need to understand human nature though....

    "Aim to know the whole universe.... you will understand nothing,
    Aim to know yourself... and you will understand the whole universe"
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    Mar 7 2012: I believe we are already modeling the methods of nature and currently do so. As so many responders have pointed out, we are constantly discovering more of the methods of nature, and we build our models from these discoveries. What were old mysteries are now understood. What are still mysteries will be understood by our continued efforts. We will someday, hopefully, understand the nature of nature and be able to surpass it in our modeling, further discovering supernatural phenomenon, understanding those mysteries and creating new types of models thereof. So yes, I believe we will, and currently do, model nature and our models just keep getting better all the time.
  • Mar 7 2012: I think "truly model" is an oxymoron. A model is, by definition, not the real think. And never will be.
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    Mar 7 2012: ... is it perhaps appropriate to admit we are not as smart as we think.

    Maybe our math is quite simply insufficient? at least we can stay curious.
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        Mar 7 2012: ...where would they have been without older theory to correlate towards creating new insights and finding new problems?
        Einstein too stood on the shoulders of those who came before, turning over the older ideas from which grew his insights. This, consequently, made it possible for him to "invent" or "create" his theory. Building on the fore mentioned examples how far have we come today and what will we wrought tomorrow?...
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    Mar 7 2012: I admire human mind , I admire all knowledge that we as human have, but we have ruined the planet Earth by our knowledge. I just want to mention most of the time we make more trouble by our knowledge instead of make thing better. I am en engineer. I have done two steam power plant in my work history and two oil refineries. After any of them I have been witness of air pollution, water pollution in those areas . I saw how agricultures in those areas were effluence by shortage of under grand water that was used for those plants. I just talk about general concept not specific type of modelling or engineering .
  • Mar 6 2012: A model by its nature is not exact. I like to explain the accuracy of the conservation geographic modeling I do by saying that the output of those models have as much relationship to reality as seeing clothes on a supermodel has to do with how the clothes would look on me! Models can and do still captures something useful. And how they don't work tells us something too...
  • Mar 6 2012: Hi, Josh!

    I'd answer your questions with another one: Why do we have to be able to model nature perfectly? I don't see why it's necessary, but also I do not think it's possible. Simply because we are not able to account for all the evolution, and the complexity of each involved process and individual. Without fully understanding all of it, we still do build models, don't we? And they work occasionally. To our use, they work well. I can't resist mentioning a quote a professor of mine used recently, quoting another colleague of his, where he said "all models are wrong, just some of them are useful".
    I think this happens either because we simplified object of study to the level where what we know is actually enough. And what we are looking for is really well studied and is a simple system (as simple as a nature can be...). Or, which I find more likely, in our ignorance, we did get results resembling the real thing, but they still don't mean we know what causes what. We know what co-occurs with what. Which might be enough often. (To make it more clear, I'm talking from ecological modelling, where what we're trying to convert into a model is a natural world, in all it's complexity and secrecy.) In any case, I think another important question is: what do we do with models that we already have and which seem to work well? Do we use them to learn more, or to get profit, or to provide benefit for the life itself, the planet with everything on and around it?

    To look at it with a smile on your face, here Michael Pawlyn showed we do know a lot. And we know how to use that knowledge. Where's the problem then?
    This should be much more relevant - to use what we know to fix what we did, to minimize damage we're causing and to learn how to sustainably function on this planet. And we do know enough for that. Even with imperfect models.
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      Mar 7 2012: Buga,
      I think your quote "all models are wrong, just some of them are useful" really gets to the point. Whenever I learn about a model of a physical system, I always have a nagging feeling that it can't possibly work considering all the simplifying assumptions we make. But despite that, many of them do a great job of representing the system. It just depends on the purpose of the model.
      If we can model something well enough that it meets our purposes, can we call that "truly modeling"? For that situation, the model perfectly represents what we want it to. Of course the model is wrong, but that doesn't mean it we can't use it to copy nature.
  • Mar 6 2012: I don’t think we can COPY nature, as the work COPY means to duplicate the same thing in two different places and the two are exactly similar in every details. nature is very complex, highly regulated, and wonderful. we can not copy the essence of these three entities of nature, BUT we can reduce it to its best posible reduction and still functional. YES this is possible.
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      Mar 7 2012: Hey Hermin!!!

      I also think it is a daunting task to exactly copy natural phenomena, part for part, section for section, concept for concept. To emulate nature completely is something that is so difficult because the level of intricacies and connections is so high as you have stated but does our modeling and emulations have to be a mere reduction of nature? I think it is possible to gather information about nature and collate them in a way to exceed nature or at least develop a method or procedure that is more efficient. I think our motivations for improvement stem from nature. We see a functional method but there are possible deficiencies in it. Modeling nature may not be possible but improving it might be.
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    Mar 6 2012: Yes, afterall "nature" could be a model. Keep in mind we need only model what we perceive to be nature, we don't know what nature is and of itself. See...
  • Mar 6 2012: A model of nature ought to be using parts of it.
    Unless the model is an exact replica of nature, with ALL of its components, you can't be sure that the model is an accurate description which gives accurate predictions. There's always a chance that some missing part in your model holds for a certain nature phenomena, which you won't see in the model. Similarly, due to missing parts, the model can give false predictions, which aren't part of nature.

    So, in summary, you can make as many models as you wish, but you're never going to be sure you modeled nature correctly.
  • Mar 6 2012: Great question! I think it is just a matter of time when technological complexity will be at a point where it will be able to match natural systems, and even increase more in complexity then natural systems! after all its all just information processing whether it is virtual systems or natural systems, we call this a natural system because we are a part of it and cannot independently separate ourselves from it.

    There is an open source project I started with is related to this subject and how modelling of our social landscape and letting solutions evolve much like living systems evolve to match ecosystems, this in turn would steer our species towards social optimization to whatever we deem as our direction - solutions would emerge just like living organisms create novel and creative ways to reproduce and continue the gene flow. Its called 'Zemerge' -
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    Mar 6 2012: Is it possible that the reason these seemingly impossible feats are accomplished is because no one ever told them it couldn't be done? Maybe the "will" has a very real influence on the outcome? We know this to be true at least in humans so why not in other species as well? Even if this is true we would still need a way to model that influence and that could be very tricky.
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    Mar 6 2012: There are two interesting considerations that we need to take into account:

    1.) Nature itself will be changed in the process of our approach because the capacity for segregation is a myth. Look at the examples of ecosystems changed by rampant gmo cross-pollination with wild plants or the environmental impact created by collapsed technology from oil rigs to nuclear plants. The fact will remain that our simulations always require interface with the natural system at too many points - both through input and via the output.

    2.) The second is that we ourselves - a large-impact segment of nature - will also be changed by the attempts and the approximations. Here we can consider, among other things, the change in learning/education styles that are evolving as well as the effect of internet technology of socio-cultural systems.

    We could multiply and analyze many more examples and data points, but the heart of the idea holds still and that is to say: No, because nature and what it means to model it will both change in non-discrete ways as we proceed. An asymptotic approach may still remain valuable, mind you, but we will never reach the actual result.
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    Mar 6 2012: At very specific levels we're already coming close, as you've mentioned, but the wider we cast our net the more uncertainty we have to put up with and the more error there will be in the modeling. I've spent a fair amount of time modeling ecological systems, and there the complexity and uncertainties are almost infinite, so I don't see us coming close to really reproducing real events. But we can isolate specific parameters, such as energy flow through the system, and come pretty close. At least close enough to gain some understanding.
    • Mar 6 2012: I agree that we will never be able to model nature 100% accurately because of all the nuances and variables in whatever it is that is being investigated. However, we can come close and in that process we do learn many valuable things about nature. In this publication about modeling,, the author says that modeling is an essential, instinctive part of being human. The truth in this can be seen in today’s world in which advanced computer simulations and AI are now used to make the complexities of reality more understandable. The author suggested that modeling was important for the future so that humans can make intelligent decisions, and I think as long as this is kept in mind, we will not have to worry so much about copying nature exactly and coming close is just fine.
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        Mar 6 2012: Hi, Andrew
        It is a great article about modeling, I agree with your and Paul's point. Intuitively, I think perfect modeling of nature is impossible given how many parameters should be considered and the degree of their effectiveness. According to chaos theory, a system behavior is hardly predictable, as the random elements are getting involved included into the system. I agree that it is getting close is sufficient for most of the cases.
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    Mar 2 2012: In many engineering applications feedback loops and non-linear relationships are absent -- but in others (e.g. modeling a nuclear explosion or forecasting weather), the accuracy drops exponentially -- as the phenomenon under analysis develops. To design a new class of nuclear weapons, a high standard of knowledge is needed (which is why supercomputers were developed!). Unfortunately the number-crunching expands exponentially as the complex/chaotic system(s) evolve.... Ultimately many of these systems are (fortunately!) bounded. So.... though we can't predict at what time 37 days from now it will rain -- we can safely predict that if it's July and we're in Belen, Brazil it will not snow. Is this useful? Ah, that's precisely the point! What degree of predictability is needed?
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    Mar 1 2012: Your easy as profound question "truly copy nature" sparks two answers in me.

    1.) Epistemological - the science of knowledge, so to speak - it has been proven that we can never proved any thesis in a positive way. We can only falsify (Habermas, Heisenberg) - show that it is wrong. As long as a thesis or theory is not falsified, we call it "true" in our daily lifes... and we all know the saying: true until proven wrong. "truly" is a concept in time and circumstances. it is a relativity concept, relative to our horizont of knowledge. This is the standard of Epistemology research since 1960 - at least it was thought so in university.

    2.) My second answer is more irritating, maybe: why should we try to copy nature?
    I would have never thought of it as an aim. nature is about difference and diversity itself. learn from nature and all sourroundings... yes. but copy? to me you posted a "wrong" question. Sorry - to say this. This is a hard sentence to write for me. In the end it is good you put the question up - a chance to clarify and argue.

    So thanks - though I really have a quite different approach.
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      Mar 1 2012: Bernd,

      No need to be sorry about your second thought. I'm glad your honest about how you feel about this. How would you phrase this question? Also, please do think about the following:

      Another concept we try to understand and model is the human body. Bioelectricity, and more generally, biophysics and biomathematics, are subjects highly studied. Why? Many people may simply do so out of curiosity. Others may believe that by being able to model the body well, humans are able to advance and improve the health of the population.

      Many people may find it just as important to model nature, as there can be many applications that could help the population worldwide. While we have advanced so well that we can make robots and machines as seen in the TED talks posted above, there are still more ways to improve. Again, please do share how you would phrase the question, as I'm sure it could definitely help answer a question that I'd be interested in as well.
  • Mar 1 2012: probably not, man-made possessions will always trump nature
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    Mar 1 2012: Josh,

    feedback is more appreciated than a thumbs up
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      Mar 1 2012: Nicholas,

      I needed some thought and rest before giving a response. Please do look at my response below!
  • Mar 1 2012: Alas, I too am reminded of a book. Asimov's "Foundation", Having numerated the universe the Foundation took it upon itself to control it.

    The perfect map, a model of the earth, would have to be the size of the earth. So too the perfect model of any system would very likely exceed the system in complexity and scale. Approximation is adequate in models.

    But then didn't someone say something to the effect that they had never seen a billboard so lovely as a tree? What if the billboard is of a tree? Where does that get us?
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    Mar 1 2012: Your question reminded me of the novel "hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy" by Douglas Adams. in which the mankind creates a supercomputer to design a superior computer to be able to tell them what the Ultimate question is. the supercomputer starts modeling the life and the result is another Earth being crafted. the only way of fully modeling nature is building nature itself.
    here is a famous scene from the movie (the answer to life, the universe and everything).
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      Mar 1 2012: Sina,

      I have never watched this movie before, but from your comments and the video you posted I'll be sure to watch it! It shows how truly complicated nature truly is, and how difficult it would be to fully model nature. The movie also implies how important understanding nature is.

      Also, would you be able to go more into detail about the idea that "the only way of fully modeling nature is building nature itself"? Was this directly from the movie, or you were able to realize this after watching the movie?
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        Mar 1 2012: I am glad you liked it Josh.

        It's fascinating, but it is also a tragedy in my opinion that as humans we are never going to be able to fully understand the nature (and life as a whole) since we are part of it and we are unable to model it (as modeling is a requirement for understanding).

        and no the message is my personal interpretation but the movie gives you enough clue to help you reach this conclusion but as I remember (and I may not be correct) there was not any direct message in it.
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          Mar 1 2012: Sina,

          You say it is a tragedy; however, you must consider that the mystery in understanding how the world works is one of the most interesting parts of life. If we just knew how everything worked, life would be TOO simple. What fun is there in that? By the way, I find your interpretation of the movie very insightful!
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      Mar 6 2012: Sina,
      The question, and your answer also reminded me of a short story by Stanislaw Lem: "Non Serviam". ( The gist of the story is that programmers/computer scientists eventually create large mainframes to simulate life. The life forms created eventually question the existence of their creator. In a way, nature is truly cyclical as we will eventually model nature through artificial constructs so self sufficient, that they will eventually model nature...

      The short story also poses a question: will we know if we've successfully modelled nature? The models in "Non Serviam" question the existence as a superior being, and in a way, we would too question whether our model is actually a model, or is it the literal thing we've been trying to model? Are artificial intelligence artificial if it's so intelligent that we cannot tell the difference? If we manipulated every molecule manually to create a living organism, yet it's molecule-for-molecule the same as the natural subject, is it a model?
  • Feb 29 2012: "According to engineer’s calculations, bees shouldn't be able to fly, dolphins shouldn’t be able to swim, and geckos shouldn't be able to climb."

    That's your problem right there. Bees fly, dolphins swim and geckos climb, so obviously it's the science that is wrong, not the animals that are doing it regardless of current mathematical models. So my guess is that we're pretty far away, still. But I do think that we can reach a "model for everything" eventually.
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      Mar 1 2012: Daniel,

      Thank you very much for your comment. What you said definitely shows that we aren't exactly able to model nature perfectly yet. However, there are many different experiments and projects that show how close we are to being able to truly model nature. Please do take a look at the TED talks above. The two talks that excited me most about how close we truly are were "A robot that flies like a bird" and "Nina Tandon: Caring for engineered tissue". Let me know what you think of those videos, as they gave me hope that one day we will be able to model nature!