The journey of scientific discovery: Thinking and theorizing your way to gold


Why do scientists spend so much of their time thinking and theorizing? And why do some of their experiments seem so far removed from any conceivable practical use? In this article, I shall explain that scientists have good reasons for these admittedly odd practices.

In the first part of this article series, I discussed two strategies that scientists could use to gather new insights about the world, or in the words of our mining metaphor: to find gold. The strategies of both the lucky strikers and the exhaustive excavators, while useful in some cases, were deemed too inefficient for science. In this article, I will explain the strategy that most scientists (try to) use, which I shall dub the strategy of the thoughtful theorists. Moreover, I shall explain why – contrary to what you might expect – it is the most efficient strategy we have.

Thoughtful theorists
Unlike the lucky strikers, who keep digging in random places, and the exhaustive excavators, who keep digging near old gold locations, the typical thoughtful theorists do not like digging very much. They only do so when they are certain that digging will be worth their while. Instead, they take their time, mostly to study the maps of where other scientists have found gold before. While reading all of these various reports, they might start to see a pattern emerging: “Hmm, in most of the places that gold was found, the rock formations contained quartz as well. Perhaps quartz and gold occur together often!” Such a hunch can then be stated explicitly in the form of a theory, a set of statements that in detail explain what the theorist believes to be true, for instance: “In places with quartz, we will find gold”.

Often, the pattern is not immediately obvious. In those cases, the tasks of the thoughtful theorists take a lot of time and effort that cannot be spent digging. To an outsider, the theorists waste valuable time reading and thinking and talking, without doing something actually productive, like digging. Yet, their work can be surprisingly important, as the theories they generate can often summarize many seemingly different insights into key ideas.

The benefits of theories
The best thing about theories is that it allows scientists to narrow down the places where gold can be found. No longer do they have to dig in random places and hope to get lucky, nor do they have to exhaustively excavate every square inch of the map for gold. Instead, scientists have a general rule that promises them a decent amount of success. The theory makes predictions about which places on the map – those with quartz – will contain gold. Moreover, these predictions are often in very unexpected places – far away from where the exhaustive excavators and lucky strikers are digging for gold. This makes it very unlikely that the gold deposit would have been found without the theorist’s contributions.

Critical experiments
Okay, so theories are useful, but why do scientists perform so many experiments with seemingly little practical use then? Well, often it happens that two theorists disagree. Each theorist discerns slightly different patterns and thereby comes up with a different theory than the other: Theorist A might say that gold can only be found near quartz, while theorist B believes that gold can be found in all sedimentary rock deposits. To settle the dispute, we can do a critical experiment: we dig in a sedimentary rock deposit that contains no quartz. If we find gold, then B is right, if not, then A might be.

Even though the critical experiment itself might not necessarily lead to lots of gold, the value of settling the dispute easily makes up for that. For instance, the observation that starlight will bend around the sun due to the effects of gravity is by itself an interesting discovery. But the fact that this discovery proved that Einstein’s theory was better than the one by Newton, made the discovery significantly more interesting. That single discovery was the cause of an entire scientific revolution, fundamentally changing our conception of reality and leading to many new discoveries and applications. Therefore, finding a theory that makes better predictions is worth far more than a single insight, and by performing critical experiments, scientists can quickly find out which theories are true.

In conclusion, while it might seem that scientists waste a lot of time thinking and doing experiments that may not have any obvious practical implications, they do so for good reason. Theorizing is a much better strategy to gain new insights than either a strategy of doing random experiments or one which solely relies on incremental excavation. Critical experiments, even those that are uninteresting by themselves, are important for settling disputes between different theories. Counterintuitive though it might be, in the huge, complicated world we live in, the thoughtful theorists know the fastest way to gold.


Writer: Rowan Sommers
Editor: Francie Manhardt
Dutch translation: Cielke Hendriks
German translation: Natascha Roos
Final editing: Merel Wolf