I’ve spent my life building models. As a boy I built model buildings, and I bombarded model soldiers in model fortresses with model shells fired by model artillery pieces. And I built model dinosaurs from matches. And I built model boats and model airplanes (some of which actually flew) and model hot air balloons (some of which also flew). And I wrote books (which are also models) in which I constructed model societies with model histories. And I drew pictures of model worlds filled with model people. And when I became an architectural student I built model buildings out of cardboard, or drew them on large sheets of paper. And when I became a postgraduate I built heat flow models of buildings. And after I got my own computer at the age of about 30, I started building economic models. And at the age of about 50 I started building orbital simulation models of planets and asteroids. And now, at the age of 70, I’m building climate simulation models of rock and air and water.
Whenever I get interested in anything, I always want to build a model of it. If I’d ever been interested enough in 9/11, I’d have built a model of the World Trade Center, and flown model planes into it. And if I’d been interested enough in the JFK assassination, I’d build a 3D model of Dealey Plaza, with Lee Harvey Oswald in the Texas School Book Depository, and another gunman behind the picket fence on the grassy knoll, and a third gunman in the storm drain beside Elm Street.
For I think that you can really only understand something if you’ve built a working model of it. Only then can you begin to get an idea of how it might work. And even then you’ll only get a faint idea.
Pretty well all my models are computer simulation models. They’re mathematical constructions rather than physical constructions. If I want to look at geodesic domes, I wouldn’t build a model using sticks and string and glue and paper: I’d construct a geometrical model of one inside my computer. That way I’d avoid getting my room filled with bits of string and paper, and my hands covered in glue. And I have built such model geodesic domes, and used them to model balls bouncing on floors, and learned a little bit about bouncing balls.
I think there’s no substitute for such models. I don’t think that purely imaginary mental models are good enough. The other name for such mental models is dreams. And it’s very easy to get lost in dreams. And absolutely anything can happen in dreams. You always start out with a dream, but you then have to make the dream come true. And building a model is the first step on the road to making the dream real.
Orville and Wilbur Wright started out building model planes out of sticks and paper long before they climbed on board a scaled-up version of one of those planes and flew it for a few hundred yards over the sands at Kitty Hawk. The Wright Brothers weren’t great scientists. They were pretty much high school dropouts. But they could build mechanical models:
In 1878 their father, who traveled often as a bishop in the Church of the United Brethren in Christ, brought home a toy helicopter for his two younger sons. The device was based on an invention of French aeronautical pioneer Alphonse Pénaud. Made of paper, bamboo and cork with a rubber band to twirl its rotor, it was about a foot long. Wilbur and Orville played with it until it broke, and then built their own. In later years, they pointed to their experience with the toy as the spark of their interest in flying.
Back then a great many illustrious scientists thought that powered flight was a physical impossibility. But most of them had probably never built any kind of model planes. They had no experience. But with their little model helicopter the Wright brothers gained a little bit of experience of powered flight. And for the next 25 years they built box kites and gliders until finally one day they took off in a powered aircraft and proved all the experts wrong.
There’s no substitute for models. The first thing I’ll ask anyone with an idea about anything is: “Show me your model.” And if they haven’t got a model, then all they’ve got is a dream.
But even if they’ve got a working model of something, that doesn’t mean that the real thing is going to work. The climate scientists with their predictions of global warming have very elaborate climate simulation models. But the models don’t work. The real world doesn’t behave like their climate models. So there’s something wrong with their models. And I think that one thing that’s wrong with them is that they only model what is above the surface of the Earth, and not what is beneath it. They don’t think that what happens beneath the surface matters very much. And I think they’re engaged in groupthink. And that’s why I’ve been building my own climate simulation model, that extends all the way down to the centre of the Earth.
It’s only a simple model that I’m building, but even a simple model is better than no model at all. The climate scientists are to be commended for building models. They should only be censured for placing too much belief in those models, and being unwilling to admit that they went wrong somewhere, or that they really still don’t know very much about climate science.