The Scientific Method
Einstein's ideas are called “theories” because they were initially unproven. They did not start out as facts; they were ideas that had to be tested. This aspect is, in and of itself, unremarkable. Most large-scale ideas that present new information, or suggest a reversal of old information, are going to be questioned by someone; as such, they will be considered theories until most people agree on their validity. This is what is called the “scientific method”–the method by which science tries to develop more and more accurate descriptions of the natural world around us.
The scientific method is the way in which scientists, over time, attempt to construct an accurate representation of the world around us. The foundation of the scientific method is experimental verification–any idea must be tested before it can be accepted.
The scientific method is the basis of Einstein's work and of all other scientific research–in the past, present, and future. The scientific method begins with a hypothesis, which is a new thought or idea to explain some observation of the world around us. The hypothesis must be testable; this is the main difference between science and other fields such as religion or philosophy. In science, once a new idea or explanation is proposed, it must make specific claims or predictions that can be tested.
The scientific method consists of the following steps:
Observation of a particular phenomenon.
Formulation of a hypothesis to explain the observations.
Use of the hypothesis to make further predictions.
Performance of experiments to test the predictions made by the hypothesis.
The predictions are then tested by experiments performed by many independent scientists, not just the one or ones who initially made the hypothesis. If the predictions made by the hypothesis turn out to be correct, then the hypothesis has been proved accurate; it will eventually become elevated in stature to a theory or a law of nature. Even theories can be overturned. As you will see in the following chapters, Einstein's theories showed that Newton's laws of classical mechanics, the established theories of the previous century, did not hold up under certain conditions.
Only a scientific theory that has been subjected to experimental verification can truly be called a theory. An important example is the theory of evolution, which has made specific predictions that have proved correct. This theory can be compared to the idea of creationism, which can make no such predictions. Evolution is therefore a scientific theory, while creationism is not.
So what made Einstein's theories so special? One of the primary reasons Einstein stood out from his predecessors and contemporaries is that the theory of relativity (discussed in detail in Chapter 6 and Chapter 12) changed the way scientists fundamentally considered both space and time. Humankind's place in the universe was seen from a new perspective, and such a notion was both frightening and exciting. Other scientists had important theories; Einstein's were daring. Sometimes a little excitement goes a long way toward the creation of a legacy!
In fact, Einstein's ideas were so revolutionary that much of the scientific community initially rejected them as being too outlandish. Einstein won the Nobel Prize in physics, but for some much less controversial work he had done early in his career–not for relativity. It took many years for Einstein's ideas to become part of the scientific mainstream.