What Hubble 3D teaches us about model-based reasoning


Near the end of the relatively brief (45 min.) Hubble 3D Imax movie, I sat transfixed with my 3D glasses as I watched a fly-through sequence composed of Hubble images extending at greater resolution into the furthest visualized part of space known as the Ultra Deep Field (a narrated version of this original Hubble sequence is represented in the embedded video without the full 3D or Imax effect).

Its principal value is to visualize data in a manner that both young and old can appreciate: intuitively grasping a meaningful sense of the speed, distance, and time involved in racing many times the speed of light through the visible universe to witness its awesome vastness and complexity.

As I left the theater, I realized there was something else of great value that the Hubble image sequence demonstrates: the value of creating and using physical models to help us form mental representations (mental models) of information that may otherwise be too novel and complex to grasp.

Watson and Crick discovered the double helix structure of DNA by building the right kind of physical model from which to test their thinking (mental model) and use this model-based reasoning to validate their hypotheses and make a breakthrough discovery about the nature of life.

As designers of systems to support users, customers, and/or learners, we must tap into the power of prototypes as physical complements of our mental models to create a conversation between what we want to do and what can be done.

Whether we are astrophysicists, research scientists, designers of systems, or pursuing empirical understanding of the nature of anything, we cannot ignore the tremendous power that this kind of model-based reasoning can impart.

I welcome your comments on these topics in reply,


This entry was posted in human factors in information systems design, information architecture, instructional design, knowledge management, learner experience, management of information systems and technology, online learning and teaching, user experience and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to What Hubble 3D teaches us about model-based reasoning

  1. Charles Lafferty says:

    I can only imagine the powers at large responses when they first were presented with a physical model of a round earth, not flat. Then again when a physical model of our solar system with the planets rotating around the sun, not the earth. Text only indeed is problematic in transferring the real consequences of referencing time, distance, and speed. I still remember in grade school where my math teacher would response to my question of “why” with “because”. Without any physical reasoning behind the equation, it was hard for me to grasp the concept. The use of physical models (prototypes) allows the mind to put why and because together.

  2. Doc says:

    Great points, Charles, reminding us that both of those innovations in thought occurred only 500 years or so ago and despite the evidence provided by astronomical observations (represented as drawings) by Galileo, these discoveries took longer to be accepted. Similarly, our means of teaching and learning is often limited to rule-based reasoning with little or no use for other forms of reasoning, such as reasoning based on cases or models. This makes a compelling case for our use of prototypes that capture as much of what should/does exist to help others envision what they cannot otherwise grasp.

  3. Jennabeth Ross says:

    Sometimes reading the material or data that is provided slips by without fully understanding. DNA models and space exploration is huge and complex and amazing and sometimes it can be overwhelming and hard to understand if you can’t see it or touch it. The creation of these prototypes or devices that allow us to get a glimpse of what we have read and opens up our possibilities in better comprehending the concepts. Thank goodness for those that share that inspiration with others.

  4. Doc says:

    Thanks Jennabeth, for sharing your insights into the invaluable role that prototypes and model-based reasoning play in our lives. As professionals who are involved in the design of systems, we should never lose our sense of appreciation, not only of the complexities of human nature, but also of the role that prototyping within user-centered design plays in making complex systems more understandable for the people who use them.

  5. David L. Evans says:

    Your post reminds me of sitting through the first PBS broadcasts of Sagan’s “Cosmos”. Television animation was still wrestling with vector graphics and yet despite being somewhat disappointed by the lack of stellar images and post Star Wars graphics, I was fascinated by the simple, and yet somehow elegant use of everyday examples, props and models. Here was this man, with that voice, talking about something so complex, so utterly amazing to me at the time, with a styrofoam cup in his hand and a tennis ball.

    I question and advocate technology’s place at the educative table equally but looking at all the power of our graphic-muscle and Intell-ed upgrades, in some cases you are better off with styrofoam cup and tennis ball.

  6. Doc says:

    Thanks David for highlighting the importance of appropriate use of technology to provide models as grist for model-based reasoning, for if we don’t constrain our use of models as a means to trigger reasoning, we can become lost in the flash – like deer in headlights – and not achieve understanding of the novel and complex, but merely be dazzled.

    What I find compelling in the Hubble 3D sequence is that it is composed of a series of actual images of deep space that were captured by high resolution digital sensors behind the most powerful telescope humankind has ever created, sitting in earth’s orbit and pointed out to the visible edge of the universe. By sequencing those images, the Hubble 3D takes us on an actual journey in the opposite direction of the light that traveled to reach it from the depths of space and time. My eyes and then my mind intuitively capture an awakening understanding that to this day I cannot yet fully articulate, but continue to ponder.

    I am also taken on a similar journey into understanding by the detailed notes and illustrations created by Galileo with his newly devised telescope peering out in the night sky on our planetary system from the hills above Florence a little more than 500 years ago.

  7. John says:

    Models are vitally important because as humans we can’t grasp certain ideas or concepts without them. In the video it specifically mentions that we can’t grasp what 100 billion of anything might look like. Closest thing that I can think of is sand on a beach. Occasionally prototypes of cars are shown on the internet which almost always grabs my attention. These prototypes can gauge interest in a product, cost of making this product and other important details. Imagine creating a car without a prototype which would probably be unsuccessful. Some car companys may have tried this with the gremlin, yugo, pacer and aztec which are the ugliest cars I know. Just can’t fathom that someone looked at these prototypes and said, yeah….looks great…lets run with this new look for a vehicle.

  8. Doc says:

    Well said, John. Things we make need design and each design needs a prototype upon which prospective users can evaluate its usability.

  9. Adam Johs says:

    One of the biggest takeaways that I immediately gained after reading your blog entry is the importance of using different kinds of models to supplement each other. As you stated, and as a few others have also already indicated, using physical models to form our mental representations is a very powerful tool. It is an essential aspect of the design process, and something that I consider as one of foundational components of human factors in information systems. Maybe, the realization of how well prototypes complement mental models is what helped coined the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words.” -Adam

  10. Doc says:

    Thanks Adam, for your thoughts on using models to support the design process. I agree that using more than one model and more than one type of model can often be helpful in resolving competing ideas. Ultimately, a single model and mental representation should be the result of this process, but how we get to that point should be open to need and preference. As you suggest, physical models can be helpful for visualizing how a system is organized – often in ways that verbal descriptions cannot alone achieve. There are other types of reasoning that can be brought into play as well (e.g., rule-based, case-based), but model-based reasoning is a thinking tool that should play an important role in design.

  11. Thomas says:

    Doc, Now that was an incredible video! What creative strategy to replicate a 3 dimensional image over information received from billions of light years away. Then to think that these complete systems are moving away from us faster than the speed of light. That is mind blowing!

  12. Doc says:

    Thanks Thomas, for your feedback on the video. Like the sequence in the Hubble 3D movie (which I recommend), this video uses the animation based on a series of Hubble still image captures created by NASA. The science and what it reveals about the time and space (where 170 billion galaxies like our own exist in the visible universe) in which we live is truly mind-boggling. And creating visual prototypes that mirror the nature of even the most novel and complex designs is equally powerful, for it creates a mirror of its nature in a pathway through the 100 billion neurons in each of our brains – another universe of great vastness that we carry inside each of our skulls.

  13. Ron says:

    I am an electronics/systems engineer. I have studied electronics and systems since the late seventies. I often study and gain a working understanding of a concept, something that is working below our abiltiy to see or touch it. But when I later see a 3D model or movie showing how that works it is like a revelation. I think wow that is how it works, although I have been working with the concept and math for years.

  14. Doc says:

    Thanks Ron, for sharing the value of 3-D modeling and model-based reasoning from an engineer’s perspective. Although most people don’t use models that often or are not aware of how they use them for reasoning, your example and the power of the NASA video on deep space helps us understand its place in how we think. In user-centered design, a prototype fulfills that purpose for getting usability data from users prior to development.

  15. Shirley says:

    This is my very first time blogging. Call me old fashion. I always wondered what was the idea behind the Hubble Space Telescope. I used to work for a guy that said his brother worked on the Hubble. I cannot imagine just like the man said “100 billion galaxies in the universe. It is unimaginable, but fascinating at the same time. 3D is remarkable.

  16. Doc says:

    Hi Shirley, Thanks for sharing your first blog comment here. I share your sense of awe. Consider that the “animation” we are observing in this video is actually a series of still images taken by the Hubble of deep space at closer and closer focal lengths. It is not computer graphics, but the actual recording of light that has traveled from near the birth of our known universe to the lens of the Hubble. You are witnessing time and space as it actually exists – without actually traveling through it 😉 This is a powerful prototype indeed!

  17. Pingback: Collaborative reasoning with a social strategy | Doc's Blog

  18. Steve says:

    I found it surprising when I first learned that Watson and Crick “discovered” that DNA was in a double-helix structure, despite not being able to actually see it for verification. Only with more advanced microscopy have we been able to confirm this on a visual level. Establishing this mental model made it possible for them to work out the details of the molecular structure, and then it turned out to be exactly right. Research about the universe is similar – mental models have helped astronomers and astrophysicists make discoveries of things that we can’t see or even imagine, like the discovery of the black hole, first postulated by Einstein. This is probably one reason why quantum mechanics are so inaccessible for so many of us – no one that I have seen has come up with a good model for describing it, at least one that is intuitive enough for the average person to understand.

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