Why Are Scientific Models Necessary?

When you hear the word model, you probably think of a toy-like car or airplane that is a smaller version of the real thing. Scientific models are representations of objects, systems or events and are used as  tools for understanding the natural world. Models use familiar objects to represent unfamiliar things.

Models can help you visualize, or picture in your mind, something that is difficult to see or understand. Models can help scientists communicate their ideas, understand processes, and make predictions. The chart below shows examples of what models can represent.

Models can represent . . . Example
objects that are too small to see Model of an atom or a cell
objects that are too big to see Model of the planets
objects that no longer exist Model of a dinosaur
objects that have not yet been invented Prototype models such as a model of a robot
events that occur too slowly to see Model of mountain formation
events that occur too fast to see Model to predict an earthquake
events that have yet to happen Models of weather systems


Types of Models

There are three types of models. Click on the boxes below to learn more about each type of model.

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Sources of images used for this section as they appear, top to bottom: Atom, ehow.com Math Symbols, Kenneth Kho Light bulb, free grabber Solar System Model, HR Scientific Works Globe, Wold Maps Online Human Torso, HR Scientific Works Hurricane Katrina, Gs

Advantages and Limitations of Models

There are many advantages to using scientific models. Click on the icons below to learn more about the advantages of using models.

Models are very helpful, but they also have limitations.

Details—Models cannot include all the details of the objects that they represent. For example, maps cannot include all the details of the features of the earth such as mountains, valleys, etc.

Approximations—Most models include some approximations as a convenient way to describe something that happens in nature. These approximations are not exact, so predictions based on them tend to be a little bit different from what you actually observe. Models do not behave exactly like the things they represent.

Accuracy—In order to make models simplistic enough to communicate ideas some accuracy is lost. For example, ball and stick models of atoms do not show all the details that scientists know about the structure of the atom.

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Sources of images used for this section as they appear, top to bottom: Chat, OCAL, Clker Clock, OCAL, Clker