Public Release: 

The Role Of Models: From Anthropology To Particle Physics

University of Michigan

"Models and Types of Understanding in Particle Physics" Gordon Kane, University of Michigan professor of physics

Physicists have a problem with Aristotle. It's nothing personal. They just blame him for promoting flawed ideas about the basic laws of nature that impeded progress in science for 2,000 years.

Even though Aristotle got it wrong, he is a good example of how physicists use models to learn how the world really works, according to Gordon Kane, U-M professor of physics. "Scientific theories are models of one part of nature, and all models initially have a limited range of validity," said Kane in a presentation at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Philadelphia this week. "In physics, models are mathematical equations describing how we think the world works. Our job as scientists is to test many models against reality to see which model nature selected in real life."

Aristotle's big mistake, according to Kane, was not that he came up with a poor model. Scientists do that all the time. His mistake was that he accepted the model as truth without comparing it to events in the real world.

As an example, Kane cites the Standard Model of particle physics---the basic theory that defines the particles in an atom and the forces which hold those particles together. "In the late 60s, the Standard Model was just one of several theories proposed to describe the structure of matter. It's only after 30 years of research and testing that we know it's the one that was right."

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