The nature of the beast

We have a new addition to the household furniture this week – a year-old black and white cat which we acquired second-hand from the SPCA. Amongst other things, he’s taken to sitting on the couch looking just like a cushion.

Getting a pre-loved (or, dare I say it, pre-abused) animal from the SPCA is a bit of a gamble – you don’t quite know what you’re going to end up with. And certainly we are still finding out about this guy’s nature. Things like having to experiment with what food he will and won’t eat (tentative conclusion – he has expensive tastes – need to change this).

In many ways, finding out about the cat’s nature (NB he is still nameless – can anyone think of a good name for a black cat with four white socks?) is rather like doing science. You have to try things out and see what the result is.

Modern science is based on the idea of experimentation. To understand a phenomenon, or process, etc, we need to properly observe it in action. Then we can think about it, draw up some tentative ideas, and then test these out in a controlled manner. A properly designed test (experiment) will give us evidence as to whether our idea is correct or not.

As an example, James Joule hypothesized that mechanical work and heat were equivalent (now known as the first law of thermodynamics) – and carried out an experiment to show this. By applying mechanical energy to a container of water through a series of paddles, he demonstrated that the water heated up. Previous theories of heat did not predict this rise in temperature, and, through his experiment, Joule showed they were incorrect.

Note that it didn’t prove his theory – it disproved the alternatives. Maybe Joule’s understanding is incomplete – sometime in the future someone could discover a phenomenon that contradicts it – but for now, this is the best theory that we have, and it’s one that works. By that we mean it can be used to make successful predictions about how things will behave.

My colleague Alison Campbell has blogged considerably on the nature of science. Much of the recent stuff is Darwin/evolution-related, which might not be your thing if you’re interested in physics, but, whatever the subject area, the way science is done remains the same.

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