Simplifying a problem to make it solvable is a classic trademark of scientific modeling. But what happens when cows simply aren’t spheres?
The Perpetual Struggle: Accuracy vs. Feasibility
Theoretical models can fall into the trap of becoming spherical cows — they assume simplifications that render them no longer realistic. [Ingrid Kallick]Theoretical models are critical in astronomy: telescope observations can only take us so far without the models that allow us to interpret them.
A major challenge for theorists is to develop models that are as realistic as possible, but are still simple enough to be solvable. This often requires making simplifying assumptions, turning complex systems into spherical cows. At times, these assumptions might be good approximations. At other times, they might be oversimplifications that cause us to misinterpret observations.
In a recent study, scientist Jack Scudder (University of Iowa) challenges an especially long-standing assumption used in many models of astrophysical and space plasmas.
Equilibrium or No?
Astrophysical and space plasmas are soups of ionized gas found throughout the universe, from supernova remnants to the intergalactic medium, from the Sun’s atmosphere to Earth’s magnetosphere. We can observe the photons emitted by these plasmas, and with the help of theoretical models, we ...