A model is a description, graphic, or 3-D representation of theory used to help enhance understanding. Scientists often use models when they need a way to communicate their understanding of what might be very small (such as an atom or molecule) or very large (such as the universe). A model is any simulation, substitute, or stand-in for what you are actually studying. A good model contains the essential variables that you are concerned with in the real system, explains all the observations on the real system, and is as simple as possible. A model may be as uncomplicated as a sphere representing the earth or billiard balls representing gaseous molecules, or as complex as mathematical equations representing light.
Chemists rely on both careful observation and well-known physical laws. By putting observations and laws together, chemists develop models. Models are really just ways of predicting what will happen given a certain set of circumstances. Sometimes these models are mathematical, but other times, they are purely descriptive.
If you were asked to determine the contents of a box that cannot be opened, you would do a variety of experiments in order to develop an idea (or a model) of what the box contains. You would probably shake the box, perhaps put magnets near it and/or determine its mass. When you completed your experiments, you would develop an idea of what is inside; that is, you would make a model of what is inside a box that cannot be opened.
A good example of how a model is useful to scientists is how models were used to explain the development of the atomic theory. As you will learn in a later chapter, the idea of the concept of an atom changed over many years. In order to understand each of the different theories of the atom according to the various scientists, models were drawn, and the concepts were more easily understood.
Chemists make up models about what happens when different chemicals are mixed together, or heated up, or cooled down, or compressed. Chemists invent these models using many observations from experiments in the past, and they use these models to predict what might happen during experiments in the future. Once chemists have models that predict the outcome of experiments reasonably well, those working models can help to tell them what they need to do to achieve a certain desired result. That result might be the production of an especially strong plastic, or it might be the detection of a toxin when it's present in your food.
- A model is a description, graphic, or 3-D representation of theory used to help enhance understanding.
- Scientists often use models when they need a way to communicate their understanding of what might be very small (such as an atom or molecule) or very large (such as the universe).