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Scientific Models: Red Atoms, White Lies and Black Boxes in a Yellow Book

Philip Gerlee and Torbjörn Lundh
Publication Date: 
BLL Rating: 

The Basic Library List Committee suggests that undergraduate mathematics libraries consider this book for acquisition.

[Reviewed by
Charles Ashbacher
, on

This book covers the efficacy of models in a reasonable way. There is no better description of models than the famous statement of George E. P. Box, “All models are wrong, some are useful.” Box also stated expansions and modifications of this principle, but the basic idea is that no model precisely describes the relevant phenomena. Yet models are critical to our understanding because within generally known parameters they can be used to mimic natural processes.

The contents of this book can be considered a summation of the philosophy of the use of models and how they are interpreted. It is a primer that would prove very valuable in the training of all professionals in the sciences, including the social sciences, mathematics and engineering. Research in science is based on models and how well or poorly they describe the processes. The failure of models is often far more significant than when they work, for that is generally where major progress is made. For example, the failure of the luminiferous aether model based on the Michelson-Morley experiment led to the development of the theory of relativity.

The professional interactions between various disciplines is also covered. My favorite line that is amusing and so true appears on page 62. “When a scientist approaches a mathematician with a problem she often gets the reply, ‘I wasn’t able to solve your problem, but I have found a very neat solution to a closely related problem.’” Which is often good enough.

The section where a hydrogeologist, mathematician, climatologist, ship-building engineer, astronomer, zoologist, organic chemist, economist, neurologist and statistician are asked questions regarding their use and interpretation of models is an education on modeling that can be acquired in no other way.

Although this book is only 93 pages in length, there is enough primer material on many threads to be used as a textbook in a full semester course. 

Charles Ashbacher splits his time between consulting with industry in projects involving math and computers, and teaching college classes. In his spare time, he reads about these things and helps his daughter in her lawn care business.