21.112 pedagogical value of simulations

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Thu, 21 Jun 2007 22:38:19 +0100

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 21, No. 112.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Wed, 20 Jun 2007 09:22:13 +0100
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: pedagogical value of simulations

Thanks to my colleague John Lavagnino, I have come across a letter to
the editor of the American Physical Society News 16.6 (June 2007),
"Can Simulations Really Teach Physics?" by Robert Shafer (Los
Alamos). He is responding to the assertion that since real events
happen too fast to be observed in the laboratory, it's better to
watch simulations of them in slow motion on the computer. He makes
the case for "doing the real thing, even if the equipment has to be
improvised", rather than watching it being done.

Recently, in conversation with a physicist at UCLA, I asked about
computing in his discipline, specifically whether simulations of
otherwise unobservable realities -- let's say, just to have an
example, subatomic events at the core of an imploding star -- produce
anything anyone can be certain of. His answer was that now there are
in essence three kinds of physics -- theoretical, experimental,
computational -- and that in computational physics "they do things
differently there" (to quote L. P. Hartley's novel). If the
simulation is plausible, matching everything else one can know, then
it takes on the status of something one can learn from.

Where do we sort in all this? Is it fair to say that since the
phenomena we study are also not directly observable, our simulacra
play a similar role? If we make a distinction between modelling
something we can get to otherwise, e.g. by reading or looking, and
simulating that which we cannot get to except after the fact, such as
possible patterns of influence, then could we draw a parallel between
computational physics and, say, a computational literary studies? Are
statistical studies of literature an example?


Dr Willard McCarty | Reader in Humanities Computing | Centre for
Computing in the Humanities | King's College London |
Received on Thu Jun 21 2007 - 17:52:00 EDT

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