Lecture 1- The Scientific Method

Lisa Tauxe

Reading: Introduction to Blue Planet

I. The scientific method

The scientific way in which we inch toward a better understanding of the "Truth".

1) Observe the world around you. Does anything puzzle you? For example:

Why are there always unmatched socks after doing the laundry? Where do the mates go?

2) Think about possible reasons (form a "hypothesis").

Oxford English Dictionary definition of hypothesis: 1) a proposition made as a basis for reasoning, without the assumption of its truth, 2) a suppostion made as a starting point for further investigation from known facts, 3) groundless assumption.

Scientists use the term hypothesis in the second sense above.

Some hypotheses:

  • The drier destroys socks
  • The drier is a worm hole to a parallel universe into which the socks are pulled.
  • They are accumulating somewhere else (someone else's drawers, under the bed, in the corner of the bathroom...)
  • Someone takes them out of the laundry basket (rodents, aliens that live off sock sweat...).
  • 3) Think about ways of refuting or supporting the various hypotheses

  • The first two ideas would predict that fewer socks come out than go in. We would count the socks before and after washing to determine if these are viable hypotheses.
  • Similarly, disappearing from the laundry basket could be demonstrated by counting socks as they go into the laundry basket.
  • If they don't disappear during the laundry operation (basket, washer, drier), then we'll have to think about where they are accumulating.
  • 4) Design and carry out some experiments

  • Set up data sheets for counting of socks as they 1) go into the laundry basket, 2) go into the washer, 3) go into the drier, 4) come out of the drier.
  • Keep careful tallies for a long enough period of time to witness the disappearance of a significant number of socks (10% of the initial population?)
  • Plot up the data to determine at exactly which point the socks are disappearing.
  • Refine the experiment to focus in on the important aspect. Continue experimentation until the culprit is identified beyond reasonable doubt. Please note - you can never be absolutely sure you are right, but you can sometimes be sure you are wrong.
  • 5) The hypothesis that survives experiments and explains the observations with least astonishment (probably not the aliens!) gets to be known as the "Theory of the Missing Socks".

    6) Collect Nobel Prize for solving one of the outstanding mysteries of the Universe.

    7) Theories are not forever. They undergo revision in the light of new evidence. A good theory (e.g. the theory of gravity), lasts a long time.

    II. FAQs about scientific method

    Please see this excellent link:

    FAQs about the Scientific Method

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    Lisa Tauxe