Socialization Into Numerical Simulations: The Perspectives of Simulationists in Astrophysics and Oceanography
preprintposted on 06.03.2021, 10:24 by Mikaela Sundberg
With the rise of numerical simulations as a common technique for producing scientific knowledge, the everyday working activities of scientists involved in computer modelling center on computers and the virtual world they create. Like experiments, numerical simulations are capable of generating surprises and unexpected results. This article addresses how simulationists handle unexpected results, how doctoral students learn to do so, and the perspectives that the socialization into the activities of numerical simulations generates. On the basis of ethnographic case studies of astrophysics and oceanography, the analysis draws inspiration from Mead’s (1934) discussion on play and game and Shibutani’s (1955) development of Mead’s thoughts regarding reference groups and perspectives. The development of computer models creates a tension between play and game as different perspectives. While the focus on programming and computer work may impede the chances of achieving an individual scientific career, the possibilities of dealing successfully with uncertain output are greater when there is a familiarity with the “inside” of the numerical model. Comparison with observations is a way to evaluate simulations from the “outside” and the use of observations illustrates how the perspectives of play and game may can co-exist. I also show how unrealistic outcomes are sometimes interesting in themselves, and how the fascination with these virtual features illustrates simulation work as a form of play. The paper concludes with some methodological reflections related to the reconstruction of the perspectives and a discussion of the findings in relation to previous research on simulation modelling.