Thrawn Rickle 13

What is a Theory?

© 1994 Williscroft

Have you ever heard two people argue about what color a flower is? The flower is in front of them. They both see it. The frequency of the light waves emanating from the flower (we call this “color”) is a fact that is independent of their perceptions. So why are they arguing?

In fact, their argument is not about the flower’s color. They are trying to decide what name to give the color—but neither of them is aware of this. They honestly believe they are discussing the color.

This kind of misunderstanding is the source of a deep-seated, bitter rift dividing today’s society.

What is a theory? I recently asked this question of a relatively learned friend. He answered by comparing theory to fact, stating that a theory was a non-substantive explanation for a set of facts. As more facts become known, he said, theoretical explanations give way to factual ones. Ultimately, a theory may be vindicated—proved by fact; or partially vindicated—partially substantiated by fact, but also partially disproved; or overturned.

In one sense my friend is right. When a historian uses this word, one can assume he gives it my friend’s meaning. And when a poet uses the word. And a writer. Almost any non-scientist, in fact. On the other hand, when a scientist or engineer means what my friend defined, he uses the word “hypothesis” or “hypothetical.” When he uses the word “theory” or “theoretical,” however, he means something entirely different.

In scientific usage “theoretical” is the opposite of “empirical.” In measuring the speed of sound in sea water, for example, researchers frequently use an equation that consists of a long series of increasingly smaller functions of density, salinity, temperature, and pressure. This equation is the result of measuring the speed of sound in sea water under a very large number of differing situations, and then deriving the equation from these data. It is called an empirical equation.

Another approach to the same problem is to create a mathematical model of the ocean, and to derive an equation for the speed of sound that depends upon the mathematical structure of this model. This equation is called a theoretical equation.

Both equations are real. One is derived empirically, the other theoretically. Each is subject to error, and each is only as good as its ability to predict the actual speed of sound in any given situation. Ultimately, scientists attempt to replace empirical equations with theoretical ones, as they gain a deeper understanding.

Einstein’s Theory of Relatively is a set of theoretical equations derived from a mathematical model of the universe. They explain many things in our daily lives: why transistors work, for example. Quantum Mechanics is another theory in physics. It explains why nuclear reactors work.

These theories are real and highly accurate, because they predict events with great precision. They are theoretical—and they are true.

When an individual applies the historian’s definition to the scientist’s use of “theory,” the result is confusion and misinformation. While the scientist distinguishes between model-derived and empirical solutions, the lay person believes he distinguishes between assumption and reality.

For the layman fact ultimately displaces theory; for the scientist, theory ultimately explains fact.

Submariner, diver, scientist, author & adventurer. 22 mos underwater, a yr in the equatorial Pacific, 3 yrs in the Arctic, and a yr at the South Pole. BS Marine Physics & Meteorology, PhD in Engineering. Authors non-fiction, Cold War thrillers, and hard science fiction. Lives in Centennial, CO.

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