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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: "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!

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