Sunday, July 22, 2012

"What is this all about?"


I am a physicist.

This statement deserves a paragraph of its own because, at least for me, a physicist is much more than a profession - it is a way of life.

I remember sitting in a bus a short while after we started learning physics "for real" in high school. I remember how the bus took a turn and I saw clearly the normal and centrifugal force vectors.
I was 16 years old - and already crazy :)
When I blow on my tea to get it cold I see in my minds eye how I'm accelerating the evaporation process - thus taking away the heat of the water. Physics is not some dusty school subject full of weird equations, physics is all around us.

It was this frame of thought (probably in conjunction with my natural inclination to strategy games) that got me thinking about much of the world and society in mathematical and graphical terms, that gave me the passion to try and find order in our seemingly chaotic life...

In physics we often work with what is called "model"s. Roughly speaking, this means we try and explain a certain natural phenomena in relatively simple terms, often neglecting small details of the system for ease of calculations. Is it "accurate"? No. Is it useful? Definitely. And even more importantly - a good model often shows a greater understanding of the phenomena because knowing what you may neglect and still get intelligent results is much more insightful than calculating everything you see head on.
Another critical part of a good model is knowing its boundaries. A certain model can give very accurate results under a certain set of conditions (for example: the model I mentioned earlier describing how my hot tea is getting colder) and be wrong in a different set (if you take the tea to a rain forest or to Singapore in summer - where humidity levels reach 100% - the cooling mechanism will be completely different and much slower - meaning we would be totally off if we would try and apply the evaporation idea).
A good mathematical example is given in the graph below. We are trying to model (or approximate) the sine function using a few straight lines.

This blog is about modelling life.
Well, to be fair, it's about modelling bite size parts of it...

Practically everything I'll say here won't be exactly true, best case scenario it will be mostly true. No doubt you can all find counter examples to every idea I propose - and that's ok. All I claim to do is show you a certain way of thinking, and maybe even a surprising idea here and there.

Until next time, may you find new wonder in the world around us.

Michael Shalyt.

Sine approximation by line segments. - GeoGebra Dynamic Worksheet

Sine approximation by line segments.

In some areas the lines resemble the sine function - in others (like the peaks) not so much...
Feel free to play around with the points to get a better fit - its interactive :)

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