TED Conversations

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 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.

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