Monday, June 29, 2009

What’s computational physics about?

Is it a subfield of theory? What about  - uhmm - “numerical experiments” (if there’s something like that)?

One could consider numerical simulation a third paradigm of science besides theory and experiment (see e.g. this link).
The term “numerical experiment”, however, would suggest a black box concept, i.e. you feed some input into the code and get numbers out, but don’t necessarily understand how and why it works and therefore not even if the output means anything.
So I would prefer the term “simulation” and make computational physics a part of theory and apply it to problems which are too complex to be solved by hand. Along this line scientific computing can aim at providing new “tools of discovery” of complex phenomena.

What do you think “scientific computing” is about and do you think it is important at all to decide which field it belongs to?


  1. I wouldn't consider real experiments in the lab as black box science either. It is in the nature of the matter that you have to come up with models to explain the observations. In a numerical simulation you should understand all the ingredients (i.e. the model). So I think computational physics is a branch of theory.

  2. Perhaps computational physics is not always practiced as proper theory, but a computer program might be able to simulate a theorist (ref: Science 324 (2009) 81)...

  3. ...or while you're waiting for the computer program to be available I mentioned before, you could buy a "Max Headroomesque" Theorist in a Box...

  4. I totally consider computational physics an experimental field. I've had summer research positions where I just collected data from simulations!

  5. Considering the amount of data that one can be confronted with, experiment and simulation definitely have something in common. While there could be similarities in the output, I'd say that the "input" (i.e. a real system or a model, respectively) is rather different.