It is very common to believe that a ‘theory’ is no more than a speculation with a very weak foundation, ready to collapse with the first serious blow. For example: “Darwin evolution is a mere theory. Not a truth”. Maybe they do not know, or do not like to know, what a methodical scientific theory is.
A scientific theory has two fundamental components, the first, theoretical, supported by complex mathematics, and the second, experimental, supported by highly sophisticated instruments. Except for unusual cases, physicists are dedicated only to one of these fields as the skills required in each specialty are quite different.
Famous physicists such as Max Plank, Stephen Hawking or Einstein are theoretical physicists. Their objective, assisted by their privileged mathematical minds, is to decode nature’s secret. On the other hand, Freedman, Clauser, or Bell are experimentalists. We could say that the experimentalists are physicists with their feet on the ground, ready to puncture any beautiful theory coming from their theoretical colleges.
It is even a joke between the two professions that theoreticians firmly believe that Math is the language of god, therefore, they consider themselves as the only authentic “begotten children” of him, where as their opponents, the experimentalists, are simply kill joys, and the plumbers within the hard nose sciences of Physic and Chemistry. Experimentalist promptly counterattack murmuring that theoretical scientist are merely a bunch of dreamers with outlandish egos’ who seem to have a fetish for blackboards and chalk. At any rate, thanks to this love-hate relationship they have been unfolding day after day how our Universe works, who we are, and where we are going. No doubt, humankind could never have reached the astonishing knowledge of today without the efforts of these exceptional minds.
I appreciate and admire these two breeds of physicists because I belong to the “religion of science” as well. Thanks to my studies in Chemical Engineering and Nuclear Physics, I learned the theories of several “Popes” of the sciences such as Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Einstein, Hawking, and many “Bishops” such as Heisenberg, Schrodinger, Pauli, Bohm, and Yukawa. Obviously, I am only a little priest compared to them, but I can make sense of their mathematical gospels.
Now, let us see some general details of what a scientific theory is.
Suppose that you are a theoretical physicist and you want to develop a scientific theory for a phenomenon that intrigues you. To do that, you are obligated to follow a strict protocol of six phases: Observation, Induction, Theory, Deduction, Prediction, and Experimentation.
Let me explain.
First, the Observation phase: Here you will start scrutinizing and recording every event that can affect the phenomenon that concerns you. This phase is critical; therefore, you must apply the ‘theory-laden’ to implement it. The theory-laden is a guideline that asserts that any statement appears correct only if it fits into a set of theoretical principles.
Second, the Induction: This is a thorough assessment of each fact recorded during the observation phase. Be careful! You are required to be very certain of the reliability of the facts recorded.
Third, the Theory: This is the core of this process. Your theory must represent a collection of concepts that account -and interrelate- each one of the facts evaluated during the induction phase. The concepts in question, not only must explain the phenomena investigated, but also predict it. Hence, you will need a lot of inspiration. Now, you will be jumping back and forth between theory and induction until you are exhausted or give up. In the end, a theory is nothing more than the by-product of the induction stage habitually written as a Math expression.
Fourth, the Deduction: Now comes the “mid night oil.” You must stretch your brain to the fullest, searching for any variable that hidden within your theory. If you find one, you will need to express new statements, which consequently will bring new predictions. In addition, you must uncover the method to confirm or falsify your theory.
Fifth, the Prediction: Okay, It has been rough going to this point, but now is the “piece de resistance.” You need to put together a set of consequences that would effortlessly be the result of your beloved theory.
At this point, your job as the theoretical physicist is over, and it is now open season for the experimentalist.
Sixth, the Experimentation: This is the kingdom of the pragmatic experimentalists. They will run every nasty tangible test created by the human imagination using sophisticated and expensive devices developed by engineers. Sadly, for you, a Greek tragedy may begin. If one, only just one, of the battery of tests fails, you are obliged to modify your theory, or God forbid, pitch it. Nevertheless, if the tests succeed, you can be happy… for the moment. I said for the moment since the Damocles’ sword will be forever over your head. Even after years of successful testing, if something should go wrong, or is discovered a new fact that was not included in your theory, you will need to start all over again. Conclusion, never emulate Moses by writing your theory on stone.
Obviously, scientific theories are not perpetual truths communicated through revelations. They are a sort of “flexible truth” ready to evolve if it is necessary, and a good many of them are here to stay with almost no modification. Take for instance the gravity theory. If you, in spite of everything that I have said, believe that it is “just a theory,” challenge Newton and take a flying leap off your rooftop.
Karl de Azagra