Steel and bone: Mesoscale modeling and middle-out strategies in physics and biology

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Mesoscale modeling is often considered merely as a practical strategy used when information on lower-scale details is lacking, or when there is a need to make models cognitively or computationally tractable. Without dismissing the importance of practical constraints for modeling choices, we argue that mesoscale models should not just be considered as abbreviations or placeholders for more "complete" models. Because many systems exhibit different behaviors at various spatial and temporal scales, bottom-up approaches are almost always doomed to fail. Mesoscale models capture aspects of multi-scale systems that cannot be parameterized by simple averaging of lower-scale details. To understand the behavior of multi-scale systems, it is essential to identify mesoscale parameters that "code for" lower-scale details in a way that relate phenomena intermediate between microscopic and macroscopic features. We illustrate this point using examples of modeling of multi-scale systems in materials science (steel) and biology (bone), where identification of material parameters such as stiffness or strain is a central step. The examples illustrate important aspects of a so-called "middle-out" modeling strategy. Rather than attempting to model the system bottom-up, one starts at intermediate (mesoscopic) scales where systems exhibit behaviors distinct from those at the atomic and continuum scales. One then seeks to upscale and downscale to gain a more complete understanding of the multi-scale systems. The cases highlight how parameterization of lower-scale details not only enables tractable modeling but is also central to understanding functional and organizational features of multi-scale systems.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1159–1184
Number of pages26
Publication statusPublished - 2021

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