By Sumaiya Sayeed, '20
What we can say definitively about objects is that they take up space and, if experiencing forces, can move. To that extent, it may seem obvious the way that a ball will behave if dropped from the Eiffel Tower. What happens if there are strong winds? You might reply, of course, the ball will move in the direction of the wind. But more challenging questions persist. Is wind on a snowy hill enough to cause an avalanche? How does the heroin market take shape in cities? The answers to those questions – avalanche, heroin markets– can be answered through computer simulations. Inherent in patterns of movement are variations, complications, nuances which make stagnant models and sets of statistics inadequate for understanding the inner workings of complicated events. The advent of visualization technology in the recent years not only illuminates the workings of dynamic items but serves an aesthetic, artistic purpose that simplifies itself for those outside the field.
Real simulations can be difficult, especially in medicine. Most people cannot access the body parts of living organisms. In fact, really only medical professionals or training medical professionals have access such a large library of the organs, cadavers, skeletons, as they learn and perfect their expertise. But what about the researchers who spend years working on technology that medical professionals use? How would they understand the distances and curvature of the complex vascular system or the muscle mass distributions throughout the body? A 3D animal-simulating software, Biosphera, has a power interface that allows users to select/de-select what aspect of an animal they want to study – the skeletal system, vascular system, muscular, etc. – and then further select which arteries, bones, ligaments they want to further observe. Researchers can use this tool to develop devices for animals or for pre-clinical trials on animals. For example, an engineer building a deep electrode in the brain can first utilize this tool to better understand the procedure to implant such a device using this interface, bridging the gap between researchers who are better versed on the technology and medical experts more informed on biological structure.
Even for medical students and residents, digital models may be more useful than actual living models for anatomical and technical training to be conducted outside of the clinical setting. Systems that enable surgical residents to practice technical skills many times before operation can help in reducing costs to both medical institutions and patient health. Likewise, medical students learning about anatomy, especially dynamic anatomical processes, can benefit from these models. Researchers such as those at Derek Merck, Ph.D of Brown University, have worked on creating augmented and mixed reality simulations(video) of what that could look like.
Real simulations can be lethal too. When a team of scientists wanted to simulate going to Mars,they camped out on Mauna Loa, a mountainous volcano in Hawaii. While these simulations have occurred before and train scientists to live in a Mars-like environment, the emphasis they place on safety is minimal. After the power went out and was eventually brought back by the revival of the generator, a crew member claimed to have undergone an electric shock. That same crew member after a few days became ill and was eventually taken away by ambulance. He ultimately passed away. Whether this incident was a result of the nature of the simulation is not a clear conclusion to make; after all, this was the sixth mission to take place on the mountain. However, the simulation had assumptions that generally led to complications; for example, the sun was necessary for the power to work, and when the first few days were cloudy, electricity problems ensued. A virtual simulation of this process could have introduced hypothetical situations with low stakes; that is, mimicking what would occur if the poser went out, a large storm occurred, if someone got injured, etc. could be used to train these scientists on how to navigate these events. Thus, instead of waiting for adverse occurrences to take place in real-life simulations, virtual simulations mitigate these tragic outcomes.
Despite the ability to provide more constant answers to our questions, we must always question the underlying mechanisms of these computer programs, as pointed out by Perkel, who claims, “There’s no one-size-fits-all solution for computational reproducibility.” As research in the computational realm expands, we must be able to, he advises, replicate and automate.
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