Astrophysics in simulacrum: the epistemological role of computer simulations in dark matter studies
AuthorWilson, Katia Stephanie
AffiliationSchool of Historical and Philosophical Studies
MetadataShow full item record
Document TypePhD thesis
Access StatusOpen Access
© 2016 Dr. Katia Stephanie Wilson
Computer simulation is a technique that is widely used across many scientific disciplines. In areas like astrophysics, the day-to-day practice of doing science is in fact dominated by simulation. In the face of simulation’s ubiquity and usefulness, this thesis asks the question: how can the virtual teach us about the real? The first part of the thesis introduces and historicises the main philosophical issues that surround simulation in science. The historical and philosophical literature on simulation in science is chiefly concerned with the relationships between simulation, theory, and experiment, though there is little agreement on specifics. The relationships between simulation and theory, and simulation and experiment, are complex, and result in what I describe as theory crafting. This iterative and interactive way of generating knowledge involves using simulation to draw together multiple sources of evidence. In order to more clearly tease out how simulation fits in with existing ways of knowledge making, the journal Simulation is used to provide a historicised look at the main themes of simulation epistemology from 1960 to the present. The shifts within these themes helps break down simulation’s various associations with models and experiment, and also provide a partial answer to how the simulation technique became established as a legitimate tool for producing knowledge. The second part of the thesis consists of two physical case studies drawn from modern astrophysics that were discovered with and solved using simulation. The bar instability problem, and the case of the missing satellites, provide two different perspectives of the role of simulation in solving problems, particularly in interaction with observation. In the first case study, simulation is shown to take on roles that are traditionally the purview of theory and experiment, demonstrating a highly fruitful flexibility. This flexibility, as the second case study shows, gives simulation the capacity to construct self-sufficient universes that can be the subject of observation and measurement. In such a manner simulation draws out the empirical content of theory, resulting in data that can be considered epistemologically on-par with observational or experimental data. It through the superposition of the simulated virtual worlds with our own that new knowledge emerges, the outcome of a complex negotiation process between the evidence, theory, model, and the simulation itself that is transformative of the categories involved.
Keywordshistory and philosophy of science; astrophysics; dark matter studies; computer simulation
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