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Building Science

Is Modeling a Four-Letter Word?

The debate over modeled versus monitored results continues

Modeling and experimentation go hand-in-hand in physics. Einstein's general theory of relativity modeled the universe as having a curvature in spacetime. The model fit with existing data and allowed scientists to find other data to verify the model.
Image Credit: Image #1: Wikimedia Commons

Energy modeling has gotten a bad reputation in the home performance world. One conference I’ve attended has gone so far as to say that it’s “outside the sandbox” of topics presenters can cover. They want to see data, not modeled results. And they have good reason for that.

The two kinds of physicists

Coming from the world of physics, I have a different perspective. (OK, I had a different perspective even before the book Asimov on Physics opened my eyes to the beauty of the universe when I was 17.)

In physics, modeling is essential. In fact, if you go to any physics department, you’ll find one of the two kinds of people: those who can extrapolate from incomplete data.

But there’s another two kinds as well: the theorists and the experimentalists. They need each other.

Without experimentalists, theorists would go completely off the deep end. (Some say they have with string theory.) Think of Aristotle here, with his peripatetic scholars relying only on logic to find explanations for physical phenomena and never bothering to test their ideas. It took nearly 2000 years for Galileo to usher in the era of modern science by rolling balls down inclined planes.

The harmony of modeling and data

Albert Einstein was the consummate theorist. He developed the special theory of relativity by imagining what it would be like to move along with a beam of light at the same speed the light was traveling. That was his idea of doing an experiment, and it even has a name: Gedankenexperiment, which means thought experiment in German.

Einstein’s general theory of relativity was his expansion of special relativity. He published it in 1915, and that’s when the idea of the curvature of space-time was born. An important fact about this theoretical paper was…

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