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Simulations: Definition & Uses

Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

What are simulations and how are they used? Explore how we use them in science, safety tests, and CGI graphics. Then take a quiz and see what you've learned.

What Are Simulations?

Doing real life physical experiments can be fun. A physics teacher might shoot a potato across the football field, drop eggs off the roof, or take the class to a theme park. But doing real life experiments isn't always practical. What if you need to go into space to do your experiment? Or what if you need to predict the movements of millions of individual molecules, observing things your eyes aren't even capable of seeing? Or how about checking how safe a car is during a crash without hurting anyone? That's where simulations become useful.

A simulation is the re-creation of a real world process in a controlled environment. It uses something called modeling to figure out the result of the simulation. A model is a representation of an object or process that describes and explains that phenomenon when it can't be experienced directly. In science, we come up with lots of rules and laws to describe the world, and those models together allow us to create simulations. For example, we might study the way air molecules move when there is a heat source nearby and create a model to describe it. Then we can put dozens of molecules together and do a simulation.

For realistic simulations on a computer, you will usually have to input all kinds of complex physics equations. Computers can do calculations using those equations far faster than humans, and have allowed us to take simulations to a new level in recent years.

How Are Simulations Used?

Simulations are used in many ways. They're used for scientific discovery, to test designs for safety, to save money, and even to create graphics for movies and video games.

Scientists use simulations all the time. For example, you could input the laws of gravitation into a computer, and use it to create a 3D simulation of the planets of the solar system orbiting the Sun. Then you could fire asteroids through the solar system and see what happens. These are the kinds of simulations that save us a lot of work; years ago, figuring out what would happen would have required weeks of calculations completed by hand. Simulations are also used in meteorology to study weather and climate change, but this is an area where modeling is difficult. Predicting the motions of every particle in the Earth's atmosphere is incredibly hard, and that is why weather forecasts can be so wrong sometimes.

Simulation to Investigate Something Called Rayleigh Taylor Instabilities
Simulation to Investigate Something Called Rayleigh Taylor Instabilities

Simulations are also used by private businesses, especially for safety tests. There's no point in building a car and then finding out that your design is so unsafe it will never be allowed on the road. Instead, one of the first steps is to use computer simulations to make sure your design is at least safe in theory. Car models can be run through all kinds of simulated crashes, and the design can be improved to fix any problems before an expensive prototype is built.

Car Crash Simulation
Car Crash Simulation

Last of all, simulations are used in movies and video games. These days CGI graphics are used everywhere.

CGI Animation
CGI Animation

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