Experiment in Physics

Authors(s):Allan Franklin Publication:Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Publication Date:October 5, 1998 Publisher: Stanford University Philosophy Department Citation:Franklin, Allan and Slobodan Perovic, "Experiment in Physics", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2021 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.) Link:Full text

Physics, and natural science in general, is a reasonable enterprise based on valid experimental evidence, criticism, and rational discussion. It provides us with knowledge of the physical world, and it is experiment that provides the evidence that grounds this knowledge. Experiment plays many roles in science. One of its important roles is to test theories and to provide the basis for scientific knowledge. It can also call for a new theory, either by showing that an accepted theory is incorrect, or by exhibiting a new phenomenon that is in need of explanation. Experiment can provide hints toward the structure or mathematical form of a theory and it can provide evidence for the existence of the entities involved in our theories. Finally, it may also have a life of its own, independent of theory. Scientists may investigate a phenomenon just because it looks interesting. Such experiments may provide evidence for a future theory to explain. [Examples of these different roles will be presented below.] As we shall see below, a single experiment may play several of these roles at once.

If experiment is to play these important roles in science then we must have good reasons to believe experimental results, for science is a fallible enterprise. Theoretical calculations, experimental results, or the comparison between experiment and theory may all be wrong. Science is more complex than “The scientist proposes, Nature disposes.” It may not always be clear what the scientist is proposing. Theories often need to be articulated and clarified. It also may not be clear how Nature is disposing. Experiments may not always give clear-cut results, and may even disagree for a time.

In what follows, the reader will find an epistemology of experiment, a set of strategies that provides reasonable belief in experimental results. Scientific knowledge can then be reasonably based on these experimental results.

2.4.2 The Articulation of Theory: Weak Interactions

Experiment can also help to articulate a theory. Experiments on beta decay during from the 1930s to the 1950s determined the precise mathematical form of Fermi’s theory of beta decay. (For details of this episode see Appendix 8.)