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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?

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  • 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:

    http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/1076/is-it-aerodynamically-impossible-for-bumblebees-to-fly

    Dolphins swimming:

    http://jeb.biologists.org/content/200/1/65.full.pdf

    Geckos climbing:

    http://geckolab.lclark.edu/dept/geckostory.html

    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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