Spherical Cow

Spherical Cow

Spherical cow is a metaphor for highly simplified scientific models of complex real life phenomena.The phrase comes from a joke about theoretical physicists: ‘Milk production at a dairy farm was low, so the farmer wrote to the local university, asking for help from academia. A multidisciplinary team of professors was assembled, headed by a theoretical physicist, and two weeks of intensive on-site investigation took place. The scholars then returned to the university, notebooks crammed with data, where the task of writing the report was left to the team leader. Shortly thereafter the physicist returned to the farm, saying to the farmer ‘I have the solution, but it only works in the case of spherical cows in a vacuum.’

It is told in many variants. In Russian, it is called a spherical horse in a vacuum, from a joke about a physicist who said he could predict the winner of any horse race to multiple decimal points – provided it was a spherical horse moving through a vacuum.The point of the joke is that physicists will often reduce a problem to the simplest form they can imagine in order to make calculations more feasible, even though such simplification may hinder the model’s application to reality.

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