The Art of Simulation

Updated: Sep 22, 2020

Written By: Katie Zelvin (guest writer)

”Today, even school children are taught that the machine is a tool for creating new worlds, not simply something for probing and/or modifying the existing one.”

While reading John L. Casti’s Would-Be Worlds, this line stood out. It spoke to me directly, challenging an idea that I previously believed was common knowledge. 

I live in a world full of computer fanatics. Both my mom and my dad were computer science majors, and my aunt is an accountant. I go to an engineering-focused high school, where half of my grade majors in electrical and computer engineering, and the other half uses computer software for CAD modeling. The people around me process and create things using machines. In my eyes, and I assume many of yours, creation is the primary purpose of a machine. 

However, computers do more than simply process data to provide results. They can be used to recreate real-world problems in a controlled environment to help us make decisions about future events. They are able to render simulations.

The first ideas that come to mind when discussing simulation are video games. These are advanced computer programs that allow users to make decisions following a set of rules that affect what will happen next. This same concept is used in scientific simulations to predict the future. 

Let’s take a look at a simple example. Biomorphs are an early simulation idea described by Richard Dawkins in his book, The Blind Watchmaker. These computer-generated structures, inspired by real animals, are surrounded by slightly mutated shapes. The user has the option of choosing one of the surrounding structures to change it, and the process is repeated as they continue to choose the mutated shapes. In other words, the person is controlling how the structure evolves, including its width and length, shape, and details. The concept revolves around the idea of the evolution of organisms. Here is an example of what I mean: