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Models in physics

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-Q135-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2009
Retrieved August 18, 2022, from

Article Summary

In its most common use, the term ‘model’ refers to a simplified and stylised version of the so-called target system, the part or aspect of the world that we are interested in. For instance, in order to determine the orbit of a planet moving around the sun we model the planet and the sun as perfect homogenous spheres that gravitationally interact with each other but nothing else in the universe, and then apply Newtonian mechanics to this system, which reveals that the planet moves on an elliptical orbit. Views diverge about what sort of entity such a model is. Those focusing on the formal aspects of models regard them either as equations or set-theoretical structures, while those opposed to such an approach take them to be descriptions or abstract (yet non-mathematical) entities. A further question concerns the relation of models and theories. In some cases models can be derived from theory simply by specifying the relevant determinables in a theory’s general equations. But many models cannot be obtained from theory in this straightforward way, and some even involve assumptions that contradict the fundamental theory. The relation of models to their respective target systems is equally complex and fraught with controversy. Two influential proposals take the relation between a model and its target to be isomorphism or similarity, respectively. This, however, has been criticised as too restrictive, since many models seem not to fit this mould.

Citing this article:
Frigg, Roman. Models in physics, 2009, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-Q135-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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