# THE SCIENTIFIC METHOD

Prologue:
Our present understanding of the physical world around us has been built up through centuries of patient observation and experimentation aided by careful analysis and theoretical reasoning. With our increasing capabilities, the tools employed for observation have become increasingly complex, drawing upon all our technological skills, so that we now have instruments such as particle accelerators with a circumference of about 30 km, and a variety of observation posts scattered not only all around our home planet but ranging far and wide throughout our solar system. For analyzing all these observations, mathematics has been an invaluable aid for the process of reasoning. It enables us to pursue logical deductions to enormous depths with great precision and helps us to see the order and pattern underlying what would otherwise be a bewildering mass of observations. In the development of physics, theory and observation have always gone hand in hand, constantly reinforcing each other. If at any time, one gets left too far behind, the world of physics feels itself to be in a crisis situation and intensive efforts are launched to come out of it. Many a times, such crises have resulted in the emergence of a completely new world-view, or ‘paradigm’, the term popularized by Thomas Kuhn in his ground-breaking treatise, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”. This systematic interplay between theory and observation can be called “The Scientific Method”. It has taken on many different patterns, but the most common one is shown in the figure below.

OBSERVATIONS

EMPIRICAL CORRELATIONS

HYPOTHESIS

CONFIRMATION or REJECTION or MODIFICATION

COMPARISON WITH OLD OBSERVATIONS

THEORETICAL LOGICAL FRAMEWORK DEDUCTIONS

COMPARISON WITH NEW OBSERVATIONS

TESTABLE PREDICTIONS

Fig. 1: The Scientific Method

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we also expect it to be able to predict new phenomena. new observations and new theoretical structures based on the physical insight gained from them very often ultimately provide us with an answer to the original ‘Why?’ And when that is obtained. If both these tests are passed. we sometimes worry about their basis. Terminology: A few words now about the terminology employed. 'Newton’s Laws of Motion'. If not. it may be promoted to the level of a “principle”. But in science. and repeated testing and verification of its predictions. It is precisely because of the absence of any other explanation that postulates are put forward. 3 . a “theory” is based upon facts. Of course. As we have seen. or it may be modified suitably and subjected again to the same sequence for confirmation. if an answer to that had been immediately available then there wouldn’t have been a need for framing postulates in the first place. can be elevated to the more exalted level of a “theory”. In short.4. 5. or hypothesis. having seen so many of these supposed ‘laws’ fall by the wayside during the dizzying pace of development of the last century. logical and mathematical analysis. to be more humble. This is a scientific framework in which we have strong confidence as being a reliable guide to the workings of nature since its accuracy and validity have been rigorously tested. it becomes a logically inferred fact based on a deeper understanding of nature. physicists have now learnt to be more cautious. a scientific theory is the most accurate and complete description of a facet of natural behaviour that we have at the time. Previously. Underlying a scientific theory is a large amount of empirical evidence. we can’t help wondering. we have a confirmation of the validity of the hypothesis. ‘Why?’ Well. And when the predicted phenomena are actually observed. Comparison with Observations: The inferences from the new hypothesis are first compared with the existing data in order to verify their consistency. When a postulate underlying a scientific theory is found to be able to describe a large body of phenomena and has been tested over and over again over a long period of time so that a great deal of confidence has been built up in its validity. a postulate is exactly that: a postulate. the hypothesis is either. However. the original postulate. so that we had for example. the term “law” was often applied to such generalized statements. It does not have to justify itself. so that we sometimes contrast “theory” to “facts” in everyday conversations. a “hypothesis” is the initial postulate or set of postulates that is formulated to explain a certain phenomenon. the ‘postulate’ no longer remains a postulate. or ‘Law of Conservation of Mass’. Then comes the second crucial step of trying to observe the new phenomena that are predicted by logical inferences from the hypothesis and carrying out measurements that will be its real test of validity. By its very definition. It should be noted here that there is a huge difference in the term “theory” as it is used in common language and its use in a scientific context. They now prefer the term “principle” to the more ambitious claim of having discovered a “law of nature”. Looking back at the set of postulates underlying any physical model. as we have just discussed. To really put faith in a new postulate. In common usage its meaning is closer to ‘conjecture’ or ‘supposition’. rejected and discarded completely.

He conducted various other experiments with mechanical objects and established some basic relationships governing their motion. the visionary Galileo (1564-1642) whose work was an inspiration to those who followed after him. From the trajectory of a tiny stone thrown by a child to the majestic movements of the Earth. Through his painstaking work and brilliant insights he was able to show that only the heliocentric model could accurately fit Brahe’s data. He worked out the logical consequences of some of these postulates 5 . After his death. However. Before going to the next stage. the Moon and the planets. We have all heard about that famous experiment of his dropping different objects from the leaning tower of Pisa to demolish one of the long held fallacies originated by Aristotle that heavier bodies fall at a faster rate. the Ptolemaic model continued to be favoured during this period and astronomers devoted more energy to introducing improvements in its structure. This began to change when Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) accumulated a massive amount of data about planetary positions with a very high precision. The stage was now set for the emergence of Isaac Newton. however. 1304) made their own important contributions to this debate. For a long time. We therefore have to rely upon the European narrative for understanding the modern development of Science. Besides heavenly bodies. he was ordered to house arrest that continued till his death nine years later. was convinced that the Copernican model of the solar system was the correct one and tried to convey this to the public in his powerful and witty writings. Generally. through his astronomical observations. Let us come back to European developments again. a few words should be said about a contemporary of Kepler. the heliocentric Copernican model was largely ignored. He is perhaps best remembered for daring to challenge the dogmas of the powerful Catholic Church regarding natural phenomena and in particular. These correlations were able to very faithfully track the motions of planets as observed and recorded by Brahe and others. however. the workings of the solar system. was not amused. this structure does not qualify to be called a theory. His supreme genius and bold vision enabled Newton to discern hidden patterns and propose laws of mechanical behaviour that were universal in their application. Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) managed to get hold of most of that data and set about the task of trying to understand the patterns underlying it. Galileo. motion of every kind could be described by a very simple set of postulates that we know as “Newton’s Laws of Motion” and “Newton’s Law of Gravitation”. 1201) and ibn al-Shatir (b. Later. there has been a stagnation of scientific thought in the Islamic world and continuity in the flow of ideas has been lost. discussed these ideas with his Indian counterparts and wrote about the relative merits of the two models. But to do that. al-Tusi (b. the year of Galileo’s death. as apart from ease of calculation it did not seem to have any decisive edge over the Ptolemaic model.this region in the period around 1030. Galileo was also very interested in the motion of bodies here on Earth. in our modern terminology. It did. The Church. its vision was very limited and it did not satisfy the criterion of being able to make completely new verifiable predictions. he had to introduce further refinements in it and finally came up with a set of empirical correlations that became known as “Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion”. and after a trial for heresy. provide important clues to the underlying physical principles that served as important guideposts for later developments. which was coincidentally. who was born in the year 1642. We remain largely ignorant of all these developments because after the 14th century. his junior associate.