6.2 Mimicking and mastering nature: manipulating the digital world
Encoding images and sound is all very well, and has had billion-dollar effects on the publishing, recording and film industries. But can we be more ambitious? How about capturing features of the wider world? From the many examples I could choose, I want to focus on two aspects of nature that are of particular significance to scientists, and of interest to the wider public:
the earth's climate;
the origin and evolution of the universe itself.
The earth's climate matters. The weather affects us all. For some it is simply an inconvenience; but for others – sailors, farmers, pilots – it can be a matter of life and death. But there are also urgent questions we need answers to now. Is the climate heating up? Is the ozone layer being eroded and, if so, what effect will that have on the climate? What about greenhouse gases? What will happen to the polar ice caps? These are very grave issues, affecting everyone on the planet.
The question of how the universe began and how it evolved may seem a less urgent matter than the future of our planet's weather systems, but it must surely be of some interest to everyone. How did we get here? Why is the cosmos we see today the way it is? How did it begin? How will it end? Everyone has asked themselves these questions at one time or another.
How can such problems be studied? There are, of course, a number of ways but the advent of the modern digital computer has added an enormously powerful new weapon to the scientists’ armoury: simulation. We can create digital models of natural phenomena and then write programs to manipulate them.