A New Kind of Science

Cross-posted from NextGen Journal

Ask most people to picture a scientist at work, and they’ll probably imagine someone in a lab coat and safety goggles, surrounded by test tubes and Bunsen burners. If they’re fans of The Big Bang Theory, maybe they’ll picture complicated equations being scribbled on whiteboards. Others might think of the Large Hadron Collider, or people wading through a swamp taking water samples.

All of these images are pretty accurate – real scientists, in one field or another, do these things as part of their job. But a large and growing approach to science, which is present in nearly every field, replaces the lab bench or swamp with a computer. Mathematical modelling, which essentially means programming the complicated equations from the whiteboard into a computer and solving them many times, is the science of today.

Computer models are used for all sorts of research questions. Epidemiologists build models of an avian flu outbreak, to see how the virus might spread through the population. Paleontologists build biomechanical models of different dinosaurs, to figure out how fast they could run or how high they could stretch their necks. I’m a research student in climate science, where we build models of the entire planet, to study the possible effects of global warming.

All of these models simulate systems which aren’t available in the real world. Avian flu hasn’t taken hold yet, and no sane scientist would deliberately start an outbreak just so they could study it! Dinosaurs are extinct, and playing around with their fossilized bones to see how they might move would be heavy and expensive. Finally, there’s only one Earth, and it’s currently in use. So models don’t replace lab and field work – rather, they add to it. Mathematical models let us perform controlled experiments that would otherwise be impossible.

If you’re interested in scientific modelling, spend your college years learning a lot of math, particularly calculus, differential equations, and numerical methods. The actual application of the modelling, like paleontology or climatology, is less important for now – you can pick that up later, or read about it on your own time. It might seem counter-intuitive to neglect the very system you’re planning to spend your life studying, but it’s far easier this way. A few weeks ago I was writing some computer code for our lab’s climate model, and I needed to calculate a double integral of baroclinic velocity in the Atlantic Ocean. I didn’t know what baroclinic velocity was, but it only took a few minutes to dig up a paper that defined it. My work would have been a lot harder if, instead, I hadn’t known what a double integral was.

It’s also important to become comfortable with computer programming. You might think it’s just the domain of software developers at Google or Apple, but it’s also the main tool of scientists all over the world. Two or three courses in computer science, where you’ll learn a multi-purpose language like C or Java, are all you need. Any other languages you need in the future will take you days, rather than months, to master. If you own a Mac or run Linux on a PC, spend a few hours learning some basic UNIX commands – it’ll save you a lot of time down the road. (Also, if the science plan falls through, computer science is one of the only majors which will almost definitely get you a high-paying job straight out of college.)

Computer models might seem mysterious, or even untrustworthy, when the news anchor mentions them in passing. In fact, they’re no less scientific than the equations that Sheldon Cooper scrawls on his whiteboard. They’re just packaged together in a different form.

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