I’ve always thought English is a loose language. Take the words ‘theory’ and ‘hypothesis’, for instance. Even dictionary definitions sometimes mix their meanings up.
Scientifically, the word ‘theory’ means a ‘hypothesis’ that has been established to be true by empirical data. Take Einstein’s two theories of relativity, Special (1906) and General (1917). We call them ‘theories’, by name, but everybody with a GPS-equipped cellphone or GPS system encounters proof that Einstein was right, every time they use it.
This is because GPS satellite clocks have a correction built into them to cope with Special Relativity time dilation that occurs because they’re moving at a different velocity than the surface of the Earth. It’s miniscule – 6 millionths of a second loss every 24 hours. There’s also the need to cope with General Relativity time acceleration relative to the surface of the earth, because they’re in orbit, putting them further away from the mathematical centre of Earth’s mass than we are on the surface of the planet. That totals 45 millionths of a second gain every 24 hours.
If all this sounds supremely geeky and too tiny to worry about, millionths of a second count, because its on differences at that order of magnitude that GPS calculates positions. If the net relativity error of 39 millionths of a second every 24 hours wasn’t corrected, GPS would kick up positional errors of up to 12 km on the ground. Einstein, in short, was totally right and if we didn’t use Einstein’s equations to correct GPS, we’d be lost. Literally. Yet we still call his discovery a ‘theory’.
Hypothesis,on the other hand, is the idea someone comes up with to explain something. Then they run tests to figure out the rules. Take gravity. Everybody knew it existed. However, Newton figured he could come up with rules – his hypothesis. Once Newton had a hypothesis, he was able to run experiments and sort out actually how it worked – creating his theory of gravity.
One of the reasons why these explanations are called ‘theory’ is because science sometimes finds refinements. Einstein’s theory of General Relativity is also a theory of gravity, integrating the extremes of time and space Einstein described in his Special theory. It replaced Newton’s theory. But that didn’t mean Newton was wrong in the terms he observed and described. On the contrary, his equations still work perfectly for the things around which he developed the theory.
So in the strictest sense, ‘hypothesis’ means ‘how we think things work’, while ‘theory’ means ‘how we’ve shown things to work’. Science sometimes creates supersets of theories, like onion skins, that explain things differently – but usually don’t invalidate the core of the earlier theory.
And my hypothesis, which I think should be elevated to theory status on this evidence, is that English is a pretty loose language. Thoughts?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014
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