Building models forms the core of many areas of scientific and engineering research. Essentially, a model is a representation of a complex system that has been simplified in different ways to help understand its behaviour. An aeronautical engineer, for example, might build a miniaturised physical model of a fighter plane to test in a wind tunnel. In modern times, more and more modelling is being performed by computers – running mathematical models at very high rates of calculations. A computer model of the flow of air over a supersonic wing is incredibly sophisticated, but it is based on very basic principles of program design and simulation. In this article, the first half of a two-part feature on model behaviour, we’ll take a look at how simple computer models can be programmed to study some very interesting natural systems as well as focus on how a few scientists are using similar models in their own front-line research.
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