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Thread: Why can't a theory become a law if what was explained is now capable of being OBSERVED?

  1. #1 Why can't a theory become a law if what was explained is now capable of being OBSERVED? 
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    I'm asking this because of an exercise I had to do from my textbook.

    It says: Classify each statement as an observation, a law, or a
    theory. One of the statements is "Matter is made of atoms."

    According to the answers key, that statement is a theory. Of course, I understand that such a statement attempts to explain WHY chemical reactions happen, so it makes sense for it to be a theory. Yet a few pages before, my textbook claimed that atoms can now be seen through an Atomic force microscopy (AFM).

    So, I'm now wondering, why can't that statement classify as a law with this new evidence? It is a direct observation of atoms, thus it could well become a law, right?. After all, seeing something from a microscope is not so different from seeing it with the naked eye.

    Shouldn't this statement be like the law of gravity?

    Thanks for the help.


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  3. #2  
    Forum Professor pyoko's Avatar
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    Matter is made of atoms. - theory
    F=MA - law
    Gravity curves light. - observation


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  4. #3  
    Universal Mind John Galt's Avatar
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    Laws represent absolutist Newtonian thinking. Theories are appropriate for a universe saturated with Heisenberg's uncertainty. Nothing is more solid than a theory, because of their complexity and inter-linked validation. Theories are movies. Laws are snapshots.
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  5. #4  
    ▼▼ dn ʎɐʍ sıɥʇ ▼▼ RedPanda's Avatar
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    If you were asked to simply circle the correct answer, then I think the question was flawed.
    If you were asked to explain your answer and why you didn't choose the other possible answers, then I think the question was excellent.

    If you provided logical reasons for your choice, then I would mark it as correct*.

    * But I'm not a teacher, so take from that what you will.
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  6. #5  
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    Pyoko says it best.
    Observations are facts that we can see and are often direct measurements. They are usually the result of experience or experiments.
    Repeated observations allow us to formulate mathematical laws which are statements about relationships.
    A hypothesis is a guess about why these relationships exist. A good hypothesis should enable you to make a testable prediction.
    An experiment tests the hypothesis and if the hypothesis seems correct and useful it is accepted as a theory.
    The theory gets extended and leads to new predictions about how the world works.
    Continued experiments and new experience leads to new facts that get interpreted according to the theory.
    Some facts contradict the theory too much to be worked around and break the theory.
    Broken theories usually generate a new set of hypothesis based on all the known related facts incuding the new observations and the series repeats until it generates a new stable theory.
    and when that theory breaks...

    The atomic theory is pretty well accepted and was probably in the book before electron force microscopy existed. It was first proposed in Ancient Greece toexplain and predict the behaviour of matter in the real world.
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  7. #6  
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    Quote Originally Posted by RedPanda View Post
    If you were asked to simply circle the correct answer, then I think the question was flawed.
    If you were asked to explain your answer and why you didn't choose the other possible answers, then I think the question was excellent.

    If you provided logical reasons for your choice, then I would mark it as correct*.

    * But I'm not a teacher, so take from that what you will.
    Thanks, you really understood what I was driving at.

    As it was presented, the statement "Matter is comprised of atoms" could well qualify as a "law" (after many more observations of atoms, of course). That does not mean to say atomic theory should be a law. As far as I'm concerned, no one has ever observed an electron, or a proton; and even if we could it would still be a theory as a causative relationship can't be observed (we can't say the gain and loss of electrons generated this/that.

    Anyway, as I found on Wikipedia, this kind of statement would still be too specific to qualify as a law: "Factual and well-confirmed statements like "Mercury is liquid at standard temperature and pressure" are considered too specific to qualify as scientific laws."

    Hope I made my point clear. I don't think the other posters knew I was aware of the difference between the terms. All I was asking was whether that stand-alone statement could clarify as a law nowadays or not.
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  8. #7  
    Forum Professor jrmonroe's Avatar
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    My dictionary says:

    Observation is the act or practice of noting and recording facts and events, as for some scientific study.

    Law
    implies an exact formulation of the principle operating in a sequence of events in nature, observed to occur with unvarying uniformity under the same conditions.

    Theory refers to a general principle or set of principles, based on considerable evidence, formulated to explain the operation of certain phenomena.
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  9. #8  
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    "Law implies an exact formulation of the principle operating in a sequence of events in nature, observed to occur with unvarying uniformity under the same conditions."

    Actually most of them aren't exactly based at all on observations...they are idealized often based off an abstract idealized material that doesn't really exist. Such as an ideal gas where pressure and temperature are perfectly proportional with each other. They are idealized models.
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  10. #9  
    Universal Mind John Galt's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Lynx_Fox View Post
    "Law implies an exact formulation of the principle operating in a sequence of events in nature, observed to occur with unvarying uniformity under the same conditions."

    Actually most of them aren't exactly based at all on observations...they are idealized often based off an abstract idealized material that doesn't really exist. Such as an ideal gas where pressure and temperature are perfectly proportional with each other. They are idealized models.
    Thus neatly demonstrating the dangers of using a dictionary to define scientific terms.
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  11. #10  
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    Quote Originally Posted by Lynx_Fox View Post
    "Law implies an exact formulation of the principle operating in a sequence of events in nature, observed to occur with unvarying uniformity under the same conditions."

    Actually most of them aren't exactly based at all on observations...they are idealized often based off an abstract idealized material that doesn't really exist. Such as an ideal gas where pressure and temperature are perfectly proportional with each other. They are idealized models.
    The ideal gas law is actually a tautology, any gas which satisfies that equation of state is by definition an "ideal gas". In that respect the law is not very useful, what is useful is the observation that some gases under rather specific conditions approximate ideal gases. Somehow people forget about second part when talking about all the old laws of physics blah blah blah
    As is often the case with technical subjects we are presented with an unfortunate choice: an explanation that is accurate but incomprehensible, or comprehensible but wrong.
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  12. #11  
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    Quote Originally Posted by river_rat View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by Lynx_Fox View Post
    "Law implies an exact formulation of the principle operating in a sequence of events in nature, observed to occur with unvarying uniformity under the same conditions."

    Actually most of them aren't exactly based at all on observations...they are idealized often based off an abstract idealized material that doesn't really exist. Such as an ideal gas where pressure and temperature are perfectly proportional with each other. They are idealized models.
    The ideal gas law is actually a tautology, any gas which satisfies that equation of state is by definition an "ideal gas". In that respect the law is not very useful, what is useful is the observation that some gases under rather specific conditions approximate ideal gases. Somehow people forget about second part when talking about all the old laws of physics blah blah blah
    The point is there's isn't a uniform or solid consistency of definition as the OP question suggest. Boyle's law, Pascals Law, Charles Law, Newton's Laws of motion, and a hundred more, all are similar in that they are idealizations under specific assumptions (even if unknown when they were discovered). Do you think they are all tautologies? I surely wouldn't. They are extremely useful, and important observation-based ideas from that frame investigating the numerous exceptions and diversions from those assumptions for further exploration or application.
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  13. #12  
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    Quote Originally Posted by Lynx_Fox View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by jrmonroe View Post
    Law implies an exact formulation of the principle operating in a sequence of events in nature, observed to occur with unvarying uniformity under the same conditions
    [Laws] are extremely useful
    I don't know about the rest of you, but my long history of work in science depends greatly on, for example, unvarying uniformity of occurrence under identical conditions. After developing software on my machine, it needs to work identically in the same computational environment in machines thousands of miles away. After developing a bioanalytical assay in my QC lab, it needs to produce identical (ie, statistically similar) results in the Mfg Lab — if not, they say it's broken, throw it back at me and tell me to fix it. If the assay doesn't exhibit Inter-Assay Repeatability (ie, unvarying uniformity of results under the same conditions), then it's my job to work on it until it does.

    Likewise, I trust my car to give me unvarying uniformity of operation under the same conditions. I fly in airliners (ie, metal tubes traveling 600 mph through the air) for the same reasons. Years ago, Schlitz beer could not provide unvarying uniformity of taste, and they went out of business. (Okay, so two out of three ain't bad.)

    I see a concern that the "exactness" of laws causes all theories to default automatically to a second-class status. Not true!

    I would like to see a new word used for theories such as Big Bang and Evolution. Laws say that, if you set up the same circumstances (usually in a laboratory setting), then the same results will occur. By their nature, it's impossible to test the repeatability of Big Bang and Evolution. How does one set up a singularity and then push the button and see if the same universe develops from it? How does one set up the same pre-solar system and watch to see if the same Earth and the same life on Earth evolves from it? The scales (mass, energy, time) of such experiments are far too extreme to ever repeat. By their nature, nothing can ever prove them as an exact formulation of principle. To make matters worse, we are observing these events from inside the events as part of the events.

    Big Bang and Evolution can never attain "law" status, and yet, we must respect the best knowledge we have in those subjects of science.
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