Wednesday, April 13, 2022

The Origin of "Theories" (Hypotheses)


Environmental & Science Education, STEM, History of Science, Nature of Science

Ed Hessler

Many science educators work very hard at trying to get students to restrict the casual everyday use of the term theory - a substitute for a hypothesis to real scientific theories, those that have been tested and for which there is evidence. Scientists are seldom so vexed and violate this all the time.

A case in point is this article in Symmetry by Sarah Charley titled "Where Do Theories Come From?"  Here, e.g., theoretian Dorota Grabowska talking about how she does this. Note she uses the correct term about the early stage of the game when one is coming up with ideas to study, conduct an experiment likely to reveal useful evidence or explain something. It is one I found interesting and one not often thought of outside the sciences: the need to know and read the academic literature.

"If someone is serious about developing a new hypothesis, Grabowska recommends they hit the books. “'There is such a massive base of knowledge that it can be hard for someone who hasn't been soaking in the academic physics world to judge the validity of their idea,” Grabowska says. 'It’s difficult to come up with a new idea if you don’t know what has already been conceived, tested and discarded. It has nothing to do with innate talent.'” 

Theorist Sophie Renner concurs, starting "her workday by going online and checking, a continually updated online repository of research papers. 'I’ll skim the titles and abstracts and see if there’s anything I want to read more deeply.'”  But, as Charley notes Renner’s work is not yet complete. Once she has a solid idea, Renner thinks about the best way to articulate it. 'I can only really understand it once I can put it into words.' She condenses the meandering journey into a clear and concise narrative. This can be miles from where she originally started, as often even the question itself has evolved.'You have to understand what questions have been asked and answered before, and where there are gaps to be filled in.'

"During this part of the process, Renner shifts her focus to other theorists and how they might interpret her work. 'I might understand it like this, but is this the best way to present it to my reader. And if I’m going to make this point, what plots and data do I need to make it as clear as it can be? This is the process—to get to the point where it seems easy.' She collaborates with other theorists to work out the details and draft a scientific paper. Then she submits their work to, where even more theorists (and experimentalists) will come across it, perhaps as they peruse the site while having their morning coffee. And the process will start anew."If you are interested in how these kinds of ideas originate at least among theoretical/experimental physicists, read it in full. 
It's fun, downright fascinating to learn more about the early stages of an idea to one that eventually coalesces into an hypothesis..something useful in research.

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