Warp Speed Ahead: Why theory became a bad word

Once upon a time, scientists proposed Laws.

If a scientist/philosopher (back in the day, they were both the same species) had a Eureka! moment, and it could be mathematically described and independently repeated, then by Jove (that’s Jupiter/Zeus for my fellow myth-heads) it became a Law.

So, we have Laws: Hook’s Law, Boyle’s Law, Newton’s Laws: all uppercase, as if they were self-aware of their importance. These are the ones that made it into the science books, and that makes them Legal (and that’s a capital L, boys and girls). Law and Order, finally.

And then scale showed up.

We found out that a set of suppositions about reality that work perfectly at a given scale may not operate quite so well at a different scale; the rules get blurry when you zoom too far in or out. The rules break down and have to be replaced by new ones.

At the small end of things, this gave birth to quantum physics, which is still struggling with the one piece of magic/alchemy that Sir Isaac Newton gave us: gravity, or as magicians deem it, “Action At A Distance”. However, that wicked alchemist’s Laws also falter at the larger scales as well, which is why physicists are inventing new Daemons, such as the wonderfully named Dark Matter and her unrelated partner, Dark Energy.

However, Newton’s laws work perfectly well at human scales of perception. They are precise enough to let us send people and probes out across our star system, and also let us peer deeply into the inner workings of our bodies. In other words, at our scale, these are governing principles.

But Laws?

If I tell my nine years old that it’s a Law to go to bed by ten pm., and he points out that it’s actually eight pm in California, my Law just got relativized. Trust me, he’s tried it (and no, he loses because I’m still the Sheriff in this time zone).

The point remains the same: is a law really a law if it’s not universal?

Scientists realized this over a hundred years ago. And so, they did the right thing:

They stopped calling theories Laws.

Instead, they decided to call theories: Theories.

So, what’s a Theory? It’s a just Law that’s shy in the presence of Scale, and the Unknown.

So, to the real point:

Please, don’t write anything off because it’s just “a theory”. Because yesterday’s “theories” are quickly becoming today’s facts…

Warp Speed ahead…

Leave a Reply