The lab in your computer6 min read

By | February 1, 2018

Have you ever wondered what is the true power of the computer you own? This blog is all about science so what I am going to try and do is to put some ideas out there which you can use to do research. It doesn’t matter who you are, what age group you belong to, if you have a computer you already have a science lab at your disposal and it is a waste if you are not putting it to use.

So here are a few things you can do with your computer, but as always some background first.

How is my computer a lab?

At the heart of every computer is a microprocessor. While I would like to avoid too much detail about the architecture, I would say one thing, it is very good at crunching numbers. So how does doing math put a lab at your disposal? Because at the heart of every field (computational) is maths.

Let me explain this further.

Not all things observed in the environment can be experimented with. Either because they are too small or too large or too dangerous or too expensive or you sometimes don’t even know they exist.

Let us consider an example.

Smog is a growing problem in Pakistan. From excessive number of car emissions to coal power plants to burning crops (both on Indian and Pakistani sides). Would you like to know the impact of breathing this smog on your body? Every breath of bad air that you inhale causes some of your lung cells to die (just like when you inhale cigarette smoke directly or passively). If I were you I would like to know how many cells in my body are dying from every breath of bad air. But how does one go about measuring this. Here are a few questions you would ask:

  • Is there only one type of bad air? Does air quality vary? Do exhaust from a diesel engine and from burning plastic do equal harm? Etc.
  • Do I inhale the same volume of air all the day? Does my inhalation vary with oxygen concentration in the air or with physical activity or both? Does elevation impact the volume of air I inhale?
  • Does daylight and night hour impact the air quality? Does rain, wind, humidity impact air quality? Will the same number of cells in my body die if I am next to a burning field and in the middle of a traffic jam?

Listed above are just a few things that you would probably need to know. Because all of them impact you. The number of cells dying in your body and how you can work out the health impact of it depends on your running this experiment. But guess what, you don’t have this data. I don’t think anyone does (or at least not all of it). So you can approximate. Once you have the approximations you can work out how cells in your body are dying. To do this you will take all the data and plug into a best guess mathematical model that will tell you that given such and such quantities of certain things this many cells will die. For instance, let us simplify this. Smoking one cigarette e.g. kills 500,000 cells in your lungs. Smoking two, one after the other will kill 1,000,000 cells. This relationship is linear what that means is you can model this process by saying:

If you smoke “x” cigarettes you will kill 500,000(x) cells. Now you can work out death of cells from any number of cells. E.g. smoking one complete pack of 20 cigarettes, will destroy

500,000 (20) = 10,000,000 cells.

Let us say the person smokes two different types of cigarettes. Brand A kills 500,000 cells and brand B kills 700,000 cells. So now you can make another model which takes into account this change.

500,000(A) + 700,000(B) = Number of dead cells.

The above two examples are very simple mathematical models. To work out how much dead cells you have after a day out in Lahore will depend on many factors (some of which I listed above) and the relationships with those factors will be very very complicated (and might not be linear).

Simulations:

So coming back to the point. You must be asking how does all this make my computer a lab? Well let me introduce a word to you “Simulation”.  Nowadays, this word is limited to computers only but you can do a simulation on a piece of paper as well. In fact we just did two simulations,  well almost two simulations. When we calculated that a pack of 20 cigarettes would kill 10 million cells in your lungs that was in fact a simulation (defined as an imitation of a process).

So let us put two plus two together.

You have real world processes. Like smoking and smog killing your cells. You have mathematical models which define those processes. E.g.

500,000(A) + 700,000(B) = Number of dead cells.

And you can put in different numbers of cigarettes in A and B to work out how many dead cells you will have. This is basically what a computer can do as well. If a computer does it, it would be called a computational simulation, nowadays referred to just as a simulation. [Note: This is an oversimplified explanation. The actual model for predicting cell death and the simulation process may be quite different than the one noted here.]

Now for a second, just stop and think. Nearly every physical process, from the water you boil to make tea, to making karahi, to turning on a fan, to driving your car, to calculating the fuel efficiency of your car, to flying a plane, to riding a bike, to an oscillating spring, to the cable plugged into your TV, to the 4G data that you use on your phones/computers, to the water flowing through the pipes (I have to stop now but you see that I could keep on going), can be represented by a mathematical model. While the above examples may not fascinate you here are some that will:

  • Projections of the stock exchange (Financial simulation)
  • Liquid moving through pipes (Fluid dynamics simulations)
  • Modelling the outbreak of dengue virus or Ebola (Epidemiology)
  • Behaviour of proteins and other biomolecules to find cures of diseases (Biomolecular simulations)

Again stopping now, but as you can see the examples are endless. Whatever you see happening around you can be explained by a mathematical model. The model can then be solved either on a piece of paper in which case it will takes ages if the model is complex or in your computer, yes yours. It isn’t hard. All you need is a process of interest, a model explaining its behavior and you can use your computer to run experiments on anything. [Note: Some processes might be too computationally expensive and might require super computers e.g. predicting weather. So an ordinary computer might not be able to do everything … but it can do some things.]

I can see that some of you may not know where to start so in the next post I will bring some programming to the table, a small piece of code and we can run our very first simulation.

If you have questions regarding the contents of this post, or have questions regarding your research I am here to help. Feel free to ask any questions, comment below. If you are not a researcher and would still like to know more about how you can use your computer to model and simulate the world around you, contact us. Meanwhile keep liking our Facebook page, join our Facebook group and share us with your friends.

One thought on “The lab in your computer6 min read

  1. Pingback: Modelling and Simulation (Part 1) - #HoGayePhD

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