Today, the old question about theory and experiment
comes back to haunt us. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about
the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
Scientists and science-based
engineers talk about theory and experiment as
though they were separate things. But they are not,
and that causes all kinds of trouble in our
writings. Now, in the face of computers, the matter
grows hopelessly confusing.
The essential question facing any scientist is how
to learn the nature of things. The medieval model
was to make deductions based on a minimum number of
facts: If nature obeys a certain logic, don't we
need to follow that logic to understand nature?
Our vision swung outward in the Renaissance. We
learned to learn by observing nature more than by
reasoning with her. That led to the creation of
wholly new sciences based on observation --
anatomy, geography, botany. So the essential
tension in science became the tension between
deduction and observation.
We've adopted a shorthand for that tension. We call
it theory vs. experiment. But there's a catch:
every great thinker has combined the two --
Galileo, Newton, Einstein, G.I. Taylor. Every
worthwhile insight comes to rest on both inner and
So where does math fit into this process? Math is
the language of deduction. It exists apart from the
facts it deals with, and it's important in either
kind of thinking. You can conjecture reality and
then see where the logic of math takes it. Or you
can observe facts and see how math links them.
Now back to that word, theory: a theory is a work
of the mind that has been, or is being, subjected
to verification. Though it's the stuff of mental
invention, in cannot lose sight of experience or of
the synthetic experience we call experiment. Theory
and experiment can't be separated.
Now computers let us combine existing models of
reality with deductive processes. Computers can
actually tell us the outcome of experiments -- at
least according to existing knowledge. That can be
so seductive that we forget what Lord Byron's
wrote about the computer way back in 1843. She
It can do whatever we know how to order it to
[do]. It can follow analysis; but it has no power
of anticipating any ... truths. Its province is to
assist us in making available what we're already
Today's science literature has strongly shifted
toward computer-generated realities. And, while
they may extend our knowledge, they can never
replace true theory and experiment. They remain
rooted in what we knew when we began. Ada was
right, they can only make available what we're
already acquainted with.
Within the exponentially expanding engineering
literature the fraction of true experimental papers
is shrinking away. What's less obvious is that
experiment and theory die together. As they do, the
problem spills over into education itself and
reaches down -- all the way to our increasingly
computer-driven grade schools.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds