Case studies from the history of physics
Science has no one method. Indeed, Einstein is quoted as saying that a practising scientist may appear to trained philosophers “as a type of unscrupulous opportunist”. What all scientific explanations have in common, however, is that they are testable against evidence from the physical world.
Particular scientific discoveries demonstrate the many ways that observations and scientific explanations become established or refuted. Creative insights of individual scientists, already established ideas, and new instruments and techniques all contribute to new discoveries. Peer review can be hostile; the relevant scientific community can be a very critical audience for new observations or ideas.
In several historical cases, the conventional story is that a discovery was a happy accident. Research reveals that it was nothing of the sort, yet these tales are endlessly repeated in print. Usually, it turns out that several people were coming to the same conclusion and there may have been arguments about who should get the credit.
- Galileo's pendulum
- Henri Becquerel discovers radioactivity
- Oersted, electric current and magnetism
- Rutherford's alpha scattering experiment
- The magnetic Earth
- William Herschel and the discovery of infra-red radiation
- QTC – the discovery of a novel material
Each of these case studies contains links to related Practical Physics experiments, with suggested ‘questions’ that the teacher could ask the class during a discussion or demonstration. ‘Answers’ indicate points that can be drawn out from a discussion. An icon is used to highlight general points about the way that science works.
Also Guidance pages on this website describe in some detail how experiments and ideas about to energy developed, mainly during the 19th century. Start with The law of conservation of energy. You can find related experiments in several Collections: The law of conservation of energy, Measuring energy transfers, Thermal transfers and Making Energy Real: Using the SEP Energymeter.
Using contemporary science
Contemporary examples continue to demonstrate a variety of links between evidence and explanation. Science done by teams of collaborators has become typical. Watch for relevant reports in the news media, for example, in the weekly magazine New Scientist.