Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Theory wags the Physics?

  1. Jun 16, 2014 #1
    We know the expression "Tail wags the dog" for when what's supposed to be in charge and driving the direction is not doing its job properly.

    How often has theory predicted something ground breaking in physics? Here are a few cases

    1) Einstein -> relativity verified by gravitational lensing

    2) Dirac -> anti particles

    3) Josephson -> tunneling through a resistor (aka josephson junction)

    4) Higgs -> those bosons.

    What else has there been?

    And even in the cases of 1 and 2, was it math leading their thoughts, or was mathematics just a way to communicate it to others? (I read that 3 was all math derived, but this seems like the exception) In physics derivations, we keep Taylor expanding anything we can't solve. But this seems so ad hoc.

    So what is mathematics role in physics? I mean, It's nice to know that the laws of physics can be approximated by mathematics. But if it's not driving the science, but rather providing ad hoc explanations, we should be informing young prospective physicists of that so they don't get disillusioned.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 16, 2014 #2


    User Avatar
    Gold Member
    2017 Award

    E.g. Maxwell -> Hertz (electromagnetic waves). You could also have a look at this thread, where I dug a little bit into the history of science with the help of other PF members.

    EDIT: By the way, if I would describe the overall development of science, I'd say it's something like

    1. Somebody observes something and/or somebody states a hypothesis
    2. Somebody tries to build a theory
    3. Experiments are performed/observations are done which confirms or refutes the hypothesis/theory
    4. If refuted, scrap the theory, restart and goto 1
    5. If confirmed, see if the theory can be refined, then start using the theory
    6. Goto 1

    By the way, I'd say that the development of quantum mechanics was largely driven by experiments (and not so much ordered* by anyone :smile:).

    Last edited: Jun 16, 2014
  4. Jun 16, 2014 #3
    Szilard: Nuclear chain reaction.

    Einstein: Bose-Einstein condensate.

    QED: Bell's theorem experiment

    Abrikosov: Type II superconductors

    Not sure: Type 1.5 superconductors

    Feynman: Quantum computer

    Some of the six quarks were predicted before observed. I think there are other elementary particles predicted before observed.
  5. Jun 16, 2014 #4


    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    The neutrino.... A prediction as spectacular (and with fewer wrong turns) as the prediction of the positron.
  6. Jun 16, 2014 #5


    User Avatar
    Gold Member
    2017 Award

    Nugatory beat me to it...:frown::smile:
  7. Jun 16, 2014 #6


    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    Just so we're clear, Relativity came from experimental results that didn't fit existing theory. It isn't like it was produced from scratch with no prior data. No theory ever is.
    Math is the language of physics. The laws of physics aren't approximated (or ad hoc) by math, the math is the "law".
  8. Jun 16, 2014 #7


    User Avatar

    Lol... the quarks more or less did away with the "zoo"...



    The situation is still somewhat confusing, IMO... :smile:

  9. Jun 17, 2014 #8


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor

    General relativity was not born out of experiment. It was only after coming up with the theory that Einstein started pitting it against known anomalies in Newtonian gravity, as well as against novel predictions such as gravitational lensing as mentioned by the OP.

    That Einstein engendered general relativity through purely theoretical considerations is one of the reasons general relativity is often considered one of the greatest achievements of the human mind.
  10. Jun 17, 2014 #9
    I think it is EXPERIMENTATION that wags the dog. The theorists just take the next logical or illogical leap in view of contemporary experiments. All those that are scientifically minded do this to some extent. The experimentalist are the real movers, but rarely get the credit.
  11. Jun 17, 2014 #10


    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    According to the wiki (based on the timeline) Einstein was working on the perihelion precession problem before he published the theory. So he clearly knew of Newtonian gravity's flaws when developing the theory (it would have been inconceivable for him not to have known),
  12. Jun 17, 2014 #11
    Yes, but it was an experiment that inspired that conjecture.
  13. Jun 17, 2014 #12
    That's true. But you would never get general relativity by trying to fit the math to the data. The main inspiration was to generalize special relativity, and it would have happened even if Mercury didn't exist.
  14. Jun 17, 2014 #13

    Vanadium 50

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor
    2017 Award

    How about the CMBR?
  15. Jun 19, 2014 #14


    User Avatar
    Homework Helper
    Gold Member

    Oooh, ooh! <arm waving up> I got one!

    The Chandrasekhar limit.

    That one came from the theoretical side of things. Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar deserves that namesake. He put up with quite a bit of ridicule over the idea.
  16. Jun 19, 2014 #15

    George Jones

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    I like the story of how he first floated the idea.
Know someone interested in this topic? Share this thread via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook

Similar Discussions: Theory wags the Physics?