Part of a Series of Excerpts from Prof. Sundar Sarukkai’s Book, ‘What is Science?’

Dr. Sarukkai addresses what the work of an experimental scientist entails-

“What do experimenters do in their everyday work? The paradigm of experiments must be the test tube experiments in schools, where students mix chemicals and record the consequences. Experiments in optics or electricity and magnetism are also familiar to students.”

“A scientist, in her everyday work, rarely does experiments like these. Experiments nowadays are so technical and sophisticated that an experimenter is much more like an engineer. The kind of experimental apparatus and the types of measurements made by the scientist have become very sophisticated. An experimental apparatus may occupy a table or a whole building (for example, particle accelerators)! Observations are an integral part of the experiment. Today, most often observation consists in looking at computer monitors! Experimental apparatuses are often engineered to high degree of precision. These are often built by specialized engineering companies.”

” Experiments do a variety of things: verify measurements done earlier; try to duplicate results discovered by other scientists; refine experimental results already discovered – like refining the measurement of mass and charge; attempt to discover new phenomena, entities and relations; test whether the predictions of a theory are true; attempt to create new things like new chemicals and new materials, and so on. An experimenter in doing everyday science might be doing any one of these activities. The design of an experiment thus obviously depends upon what the experiment is meant to do.”

(Page 42)

“There is a common perception that experiments verify theories. This is indeed an important aim of experimentation. But to actually do an experiment to verify a theory is an extremely challenging task. Very often, theories derive consequences without worrying how they can ever be tested. Consider the famous example of testing Einstein’s general theory of relativity. This test was of measuring the bending of light rays when a light from a star passed a heavy object like the sun. The theory seems ‘simple’ enough but how does an experimenter even think of measuring how much light rays bend when they pass by the sun? This experiment required great ingenuity, as well as the occurrence of an eclipse. And it is not as if one goes and takes a photograph of the bending of light rays. The story of this experimental ‘proof’ is complex and the debate on whether the first experiment really proved Einstein’s theory or not continues even today.”

(Page 43)

” What does a scientist observe in an experiment? In today’s highly specialized science, very rarely do scientists see new phenomenon or results. The observations are more often than not some reading of an instrument. Some experiments take a long time to design and build; although the ‘running’ of the experiment will many times be for a short duration. It also needs great skill to make sense of this experimental output and here theories are often helpful. Rarely do scientists actually ‘see’ the results of the experiment. They have to infer the results from instrumental observations. Everyday experimentation is all about patience, sitting in front of the apparatus, making sure that everything is running smoothly, and learning to wait!”

(Page 44)
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