Thursday, September 6, 2007

537 Osmosis Jones, analogies, models and metaphors

Message no. 537[Branch from no. 517] Posted by Thomas Culhane (1311520071) on Sunday, March 4, 2007 9:18am Subject: Re: Relational Summary

A very fine, fiery relational summary with some neat insights!

There is a great animated/live action film with Bill Murray and the wonderful Chris Rock called Osmosis Jones in which they use the metaphor you brought up, comparing a human body to a vast metropolis. I highly highly recommend it!!

You can preview some scenes from the film (and wander around the human body/city) on this website:

A word of caution about analogies and metaphors though:

The danger we face when we use them is that they can also cause us to misunderstand the subtleties of a system. For example, a city and a body can be compared, but it would be dangerous for us to assume that our government is "the brain" while the citizens are mere leukocytes (like Osmosis Jones) who should do what the brain tells them. In fact, the movie is about a renegade white blood cell (Chris Rock) who refuses to listen to the orders of the corrupt government.

In a proper democracy we would never want to give control over to the government (that is why we have the "right to bear arms" in America!) but in a body you would not want a democracy.

Another example comes from science classes in which we teach the "solar system model of the atom". At first it makes it easy for kids to understand using the analogy of the nucleus of an atom being like the sun and the electrons being like planets in their orbits. The problem, as you may have experienced when you finally conquered your fear and finished your chem class, is that electrons don't behave like planets at all. Despite the convenience of describing the s, p,and d "orbitals" or "shells" as analogous to the fixed orbits of planets, electrons do not orbit the nucleus at all -- they appear probabilistically in electron clouds. Kids raised with the solar system model (the Neals Bohr atom model) have a very hard time adapting to the better model that we have developed since the development of quantum mechanics. When we adhere to the Bohr model, we find it impossible to understand how atoms behave, and this can have disastrous consequences when dealing with nuclear energy and the chemistry of explosives.

Science is indeed a set of procedures for reducing uncertainty, as you point out. We must be careful, though, that the uncertainty we are reducing is the real uncertainty of prediction and not our individual uncertainty about a subject. Too often our science teachers try to simplify the complexities of nature so that we feel more "certain" on an exam. In fact our certainty as students comes at the risk of greater uncertainty in predicting how nature will behave!

Nonetheless, I think using the city as a metaphor for how the body behaves is fun and instructional! Check out the movie, if you haven't seen it already! You may also get a kick out of "Fantastic Voyage":

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