Computational Physics and a group of 1000 8th graders

I like computers, really I do. Computational physics is a good thing. However, there is a small problem. The problem is that there seems to be a large number of people out there that treat numerical methods and simulations as something different than theoretical calculations. You can tell who these people are because they refer to simulations as “experiments”. But what do these simulations really do in science? What is science really all about?


To me, science is all about models. Making models, testing models, upgrading models. Models. Some examples are the model of gravity. One such model is that there is a gravitational force between any two objects with mass. This force is inversely proportional the square of the distance between them. (This is Newton’s model). Is this model perfect? No. Is this model the truth? No. How did this model come about? Experimental evidence.


Well, how do you make models and what form can they take? To make a model, you collect some observations. The model should agree with these observations. This model could be a physical model (like the globe). It could be a mathematical model (like V=IR). It could be a numerical model – like a [vpython]( program of a baseball trajectory with air resistance. These are all models.

**8th graders**

What does any of this have to do with 8th graders? I claim that any numerical calculation or simulation could be done with a group of 1000 8th graders rather than a computer. What does a computer do? (a computer program really) A program takes a problem and breaks it into a bunch a really small steps. It then does each of these steps and combines them together in some way. Just like a group of 8th graders with TI-89 calculators. Clearly, they are just computing something – they are not a separate type of science (other than theory and experiment).