Artists created the first virtual realities -- sometimes in the forms of cave drawings, paintings, and friezes. The above photograph is a woman who is experiencing the virtual experience of stereo viewing of a remote object or scene with a stereoscope. As modeling and simulation researchers, we should think of new ways to represent models of observed phenomena. Do you use equations, statistical plots, or diagrams with pointy arrows and boxes? With the rapid expansion of the web, we are reaching a state where multiple representations for any abstract concept are at our fingertips. Seeing one abstract concept 300 different ways. This is especially important for those outside of engineering. Modeling and simulation, as a discipline, is becoming so widespread that we need to bring the academic knowledge of our area into the hands of everyone. We are not going to reach the masses with limited human experiences for modeling. That means diversity in model representation. Want to model something but not in Simul8 or Arena, but instead in Minecraft? Go for it. For the professional engineer, Minecraft is the wrong choice. But for teaching the student who grows up in these new powerful multi-player virtual worlds, why not use environments that attract them rather than conforming to a perceived set of standards employed mainly by a limited set of professionals. Strap on your Victorian-era stereoscope and come with me on a different sort of simulation modeling adventure.
When I landed my first academic job at the University of Florida in the mid-80s, I began a slow and steady life journey of knowledge enrichment, which included making friends and colleagues in different schools. One of the things that confused me then, and continues to be a puzzle now, is the schism existing between and among areas such as arts, humanities, science, and engineering. Here is one example of a schism, or perhaps more of a deep canyon. Recall that the humanities are traditionally very old subjects--been around a while and dominated by reading and writing: Scholarly production. Then, consider the arts, and by "arts," I am referring to the arts of the senses such as fine art, ceramics, sculpture, and performing arts such as theatre and dance. Tasks that involve making live in the art building. People are making things--paintings, kinetic sculptures, cinema. Tasks that involve writing are somewhere else on campus--in the humanities building. There is a deep schizophrenia where the people who "make" and the people who "write" don't talk much with each other. As an engineer, I find this peculiar because in engineering, not only are writing and making in the same place, they are also in the same person. All engineers are expected to form carefully worded arguments about what they contribute to knowledge through making; engineering has a high degree of scholarship as do most areas within the university. All of this causes me to wonder whether what is going on in "digital humanities" is actually a leaking of engineering culture into the humanities. Is that a bad thing? I don't think so, and let's not muddy the waters in the digital humanities with misleading phrases like "using a tool" or "using technology." These have nothing to do with what is occurring at a fundamental, philosophical level within the humanities. At the core, the transitions are about a social and cultural osmosis from science and engineering. Similarly, there are big shifts--rooted in the arts and humanities--occurring in science and engineering, but that is the subject of another post.
About a year ago, two of my colleagues (Bonnie Pitman and Cassini Nazir) and I got together and decided to connect. The idea was to connect ideas using Liz Larner's sculpture, appropriately entitled "X". Larner's sculpture was first modeled in wood (above) and then resculpted in steel. The sculpture was on loan to us in the Art & Technology (ATEC) building, and is now heading back to its home at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas. The three of us imagined a web presence and asked everyone to make connections to "X". Making these connections creates bridges across the university, poking holes into the vertical silos defined by colleges, schools, and departments. These connections are part of an online exhibit of perspectives on, and views of, the object. The ideas of modeling, found within the simulation and modeling field, are found in these perspectives. Models are perspectives on a thing: abstracting out space and time. These ideas were brought home for me yesterday when visiting the Brooklyn Museum where they have an exhibit Connecting Cultures. Museums are places where we are encouraged to make connections among people, places, and things. Models are language-based artifacts that assist us with forging new cultures around ways of modeling. So, the worlds of museums, sculptures, and scientific models may have stronger connections than we might think.
Physicality is defined by Merriam-Webster as "intensely physical orientation : predominance of the physical usually at the expense of the mental, spiritual, or social." The above photograph is from a post within a list of physical visualizations. The list begins with the corporeal concept of number in the form of Mesopotamian clay tokens from 5500BC. Included are many fascinating realizations such as a "sculpture" from the Tohoku Japanese earthquake data. The photo from 1985 of Rick Becker of AT&T Bell Labs is particularly striking because on the left, we have a tangible representation, and on the right, something flat on a green screen. To be sure, the screen representation had the advantage of being dynamic and more efficiently constructed. At the same time, something was lost in the evolutionary process-- the physicality disappeared. We may need to revisit the past to see what can be reconstructed, but with a new flair guided by technologies such as 3D printing and embedded micro controller-based systems. We may also need to evolve our culture because we have lived in flatland for so long. [Related post The Disappearing Trick of HiTech]
You have probably heard the old canard, "Those who do, do. Those who cannot do, teach." Time to set the record straight. Pick a topic that you think you know. Any topic. Now, explain it to 3 different people: a child, a colleague not in your area of expertise, and someone who is completely outside of your social circle--perhaps someone of a very different age than your own. If you cannot explain your topic to them, then you don't know what you are talking about! I know that this may come as a bit of a shock to some--that learning and communicating are flip sides of the same coin when it comes to mastering knowledge. But the classic Greek philosophers had no problem with this. Plato (a student of Socrates, image above) and Aristotle got it. They invented it. Plato and Aristotle formed what would 1600 years later would be called colleges, schools, and universities. The Academy was created by Plato around 387BC. Aristotle, who studied there, formed his own: the Lyceum. Luminaries such as Einstein and Feynman also got it. Look at how they behaved, how they communicated, and what they accomplished. So, what is the lesson here? Stop trying to impress only your colleagues and start communicating what you know to the other 99% of the human race. By doing so, you will dramatically take your own understanding of an area to new heights. You will not only be a Teacher, but an Understander.