Sometime between when humans discovered fire and when Antoine Lavoisier finally figured out how it worked, there was an hypothesis floated in the 1660s that things burned because of an element called phlogiston that existed within things that could burn, and letting it out created the flames.
It’s kind of chicken and egg, really — did things burn because that’s what the phlogiston in them did, or did they only burn when it was somehow let out?
But Lavoisier and his experiments ended all that nonsense just over a century later, when he proved that combustion was actually the result of rapid oxidation of a flammable material in the presence of a fuel source.
Also: some substances lose mass when they burn and others gain it. It all depends upon how oxygen deals with the reaction.
Then there was also the idea of ether (or aether), the postulated medium necessary for light to be able to propagate through what was otherwise the vacuum of space. This was another product of the 17th century.
Sir Isaac Newton, to his credit, rejected the idea early, mainly based on the idea that any media that would channel and direct light would also fuck with gravity, and so the orbits of the planets wouldn’t work the way that they did. In a very weird way, this was kind of a prediction of how relativity and quantum mechanics would suffer a nasty break-up centuries later.
The more that scientists determined the properties that the ether would have to have in order to guide light the way it had been alleged to do, the more ridiculous the concept became. Newton had been right. The density of the ether required would have totally screwed every star and planet in space by making them motionless.
Einstein eventually drove the nails into the coffin of the concept of ether with — surprise — his special theory of relativity, which really changed a lot of things in science.
One of the big ones is something that’s going to come up here later.
A brief note on terminology
One of the most misused scientific terms is “theory,” because it means two really different things depending upon who’s using it. Unfortunately, far too many non-scientists of the politician/armchair pundit variety have abused the word “theory” in order to attack actual science.
So you’ll quite often hear things like people saying “Evolution is only a theory,” not realizing that the words “only a” do not belong. The problem is that to most non-scientists, the word “theory” means “an idea I have about how the world works but with no research yet,” or, more frequently, “something I pulled out of my ass.”
This makes it very easy for them to look at something like Evolution and say, “Oh, it’s just a theory.”
Funny how you never really hear people say that about gravity, right?
But what lay people like to call theory is, in scientific terms, an hypothesis. And yes, it absolutely is nothing more than an idea, or a concept, or something that a researcher in a particular field really did pull out of their ass.
Why? To do the work necessary to see whether it’s true.
The best part is that it does not matter at all how ridiculous that original hypothesis is. Why? Because this is when we pick up the scientific method, and it works like so:
- Determine what your hypothesis is and how you want to test it. Note: Keep it to real science. Once you start to try to measure or theorize on things like people’s behavior or ideas or whatever, you’ve veered off into social “science,” which is not science at all. Fight me, biatches. I minored in psych in college, so I know what I’m talking about.
- A real scientific hypothesis might be something like this: “Why can we not predict whether stars under X solar masses will either go nova, collapse into a neutron star, or become a black hole?” “Why do we still find DNA from Denisovans in modern humans when there is no evidence at all that they ever co-existed?” “Why does natural selection seem to like to re-create crabs over and over?” (Note: Humans and Denisovans did cross-breed at one point. The examples are just “what-ifs.”)
- And everyone of those questions then ends with, “Because… this,” and that’s where the hypothesis goes. These are still just guesses, though, of how a process might work. “Because we do not know the exact composition of the ultimate solar core, and the density of the elements in it,” or “Because Denisovans never met modern humans directly, but they did interbreed with earlier species of compatible breeders who did mix DNA with modern humans,” or “Because that kind of shelled, flat form with multiple arms and giant weapons up front provided a lot of protection on land and sea, so that’s why it kept coming back.”
- .. after the “because this,” it’s data collecting time, and that’s where the science happens. Observe stars with ever-increasing resolution to figure out the exact composition of their cores; keep testing that DNA, both Y and mitochondrial, and you will eventually figure out when and where the first Denisovan got horny enough to hump the first proto-human and, ta-da… another uplink on that Y-DNA chain.
And, finally, if you’ve ever had crotch crickets, you know that crabs are obviously the most evolved to survive lifeform on the planet, whether they’re zip-lining down your pubes, torturing the hell out of your crotch (and anyone it’s ever been near to in the last 36 hours), or reminding you of the real reason that Anakin hates sand. But a really good scientific subject for this would be, “How the hell do I destroy these little itch-mongers without having to shave everything and then carpet-bomb my crotch?”
- Ask “why” question, postulate “because” answer, compile a shitload of data and analyze it. Trust what tells you you’re full of shit, take several more looks at what tells you you’re right — then run the whole damn experiment all over again with a different group.
- Lather, rinse, repeat, and eventually come up with something that either completely proves that your hypothesis was wrong, or that is a study you can share, which you do, with your fellow scientists.
- They go out, look at your study, try to get the same results within their own group, and then report back. Sometimes, they will find the exact same things, which is “Hooray!” Other times, they will find discrepancies, which might mean that there were errors in the original data or design, but these can just lead to more scientific studies.
- Lather, rinse repeat, until it looks like the hypothesis does explain the process. Peer-review one last time, then publish.
And that is the scientific method in a nutshell. All of those various experiments and peer-reviewed studies eventually lead to some sort of consensus with replicable results that explain how and why a particular thing occurs.
Then, and only then, do you get to jump out and declare…
So, for example, going back to one of the original hypotheses, the theory might now explain “How stellar dynamics determine whether a star of given mass will go nova, collapse into a neutron star, or become a black hole.”
And this new theory will include hard data, along the lines of “A star needs to have a mass less than X but diameter of Y in order to go nova, mass greater than X and diameter between Y and Z in order to become a neutron star, and mass greater than X and diameter less than Z in order to become a black hole.
A theory can also be disproven, rewritten, or confirmed multiple times. That’s how science works. But then there are those rare occasions where two theories both seem to be true, and yet create completely incompatible explanations for how the universe works.
Big and little
You’ve probably heard of Einstein’s “Theory of Relativity,” but there are actually two. The first, published in 1905, was his Special Theory of Relativity, most famous for giving us E=mc2, giving us the idea of mass/energy equivalence. That is, for any given mass, if you convert it entirely to energy, you’re going to get a really, really big boom because the value of c (the speed of light in a vacuum) is so huge, and then you square it and use it as a multiplier.
I think that most people have an intuitive understanding that this formula is what predicted the ultimate destructive power of nuclear weapons, which don’t even completely convert the mass in them into energy.
But the real purpose of this first theory of relativity was to show how space and time are connected, and it proved why no object with any rest mass could move at the speed of light. Its mass would increase with velocity, becoming infinite before hitting the speed of light, therefore making it impossible to make it go any faster, because there just isn’t enough energy.
See, the equation works both ways. But it did not account for acceleration. It only dealt with objects moving at the speed of light. It took ten years, but then Einstein published his General Theory of Relativity.
Here, among other things, accounting for acceleration and momentum made the results even freakier because the expanded formula squares both the E and (mc2) parts, then adds the product of that mass’s momentum, also times c squared.
It also dragged (pun intended) gravity into the equation, as in the Special Theory explained how space and time were linked, and the General Theory explained how gravity could affect them — reading “affect” as bend and distort.
That was the major mind-bending idea behind it that still hasn’t been disproven. Gravity is some kind of force that works across the universe on cosmic scales, and it basically tugs on the fabric of reality — space and time — doing things like making objects with mass attract each other or making objects with mass slow down time.
This theory came with an easy test. Since Gravity actually affected the fabric of space, any collision of two sufficiently massive objects should create ripples in space itself. It took a century, but in 2016, the first gravity waves were measured, confirming Einstein — yet again.
So we have plenty of evidence showing what gravity can do, that it is probably an inherent property of mass, and it can bend space, time, and light — but we still have no idea what it does.
Attempts to come up with a hypothetical “graviton” particle that carries the gravitational force, analogous to things like the photon, gluon, and electron, have so far been unsuccessful — meaning that gravity cannot be explained via quantum physics.
This is probably entirely a matter of scale.
To be continued next week…
Image Source, European Space Agency, licensed under (CC 4.0) International