Ok, you understand the process. You know how to make a good model.
You've gained the skills (or, you're working on it!). What tools do
physicists use to convert abstract data into physics understanding?
What's a Gedanken Experiment, again?
It's a thought experiment.
Usually to difficult to carry out in real life.
For example, Einstein thought was ``what would I see if I traveled the speed of light?"
see also Schrodinger's cat.
Analogies come in two flavors. Exact Analogies occur
when the mathematical
model for a given system is identical in form to that of a completely different
system. An example is the motion of a pendulum and the motion of a mass on a spring.
There are also Regular Analogies. For example, to understand how electric current
flows through a wire, one is often asked to think of water going through a hose.
As another example, consider light waves and sound waves. If you understand
one well, but not the other, you have a basis for understanding. You can
ask ``How are they similar?" "How are they different?"
A picture is worth MORE THAN a thousand words. Intelligent and
well labelled graphs, tables, schematics, Venn Diagrams, Flowcharts... can really help
one to understand what's happening, suggest other things that should be considered,
and communicate a result to others. These are especially important in branches
of physics where one is not talking things encountered in everyday life since
one cannot access their ``common sense."
Gedankan Experiments are Thought Experiments. Some experiments
are impractical (e.g. moving the earth), but a given theory must logically explain
even impractical experiments.
Rules of Thumb
In science, general patterns emerge which are
not governed by strict mathematical rules. These guidelines can help us
understand a given system.
Sense Checks and Reality Checks
In the complicated iterative process of
the Scientific Method, one can obtain results which are erroneous. This
can be checked using common sense. (I once had a student, a very good student,
have an answer on a test saying that the collision time between gas particles
in a box was longer than the age of the universe. Had she done a check on
the final answer, she would have seen the problem almost immediately. By the
way, she multiplied by Avagadro's number instead of dividing by it!)
Mnemonics can make it easier to remember important information
about a system. (Hey, whose exactly is Roy G Biv?)
To help us understand time series data, we can look at the data
itself, the Fourier Spectrum of the data, a ``map" of the data... All of these
contain the same information, but a different view often helps gives us a
better understanding of the system. Mathematically, we can solve a problem in different
coordinate systems, but the answer must be the same - we have many different ways
to solve a problem, some are simple, some are nearly impossible.