The Second Version

13/05/08

Another Scientific Misconception

The misconception of the day is that scientific laws are at a higher hierarchical level than theories - something along the lines of "when a theory is proven, it becomes a law".

That is simply wrong.
In science, laws are merely mathematical relations between different quantities, and they are generally the result of empirical observations. They are proven in the sense that, within experimental error and sometimes other limits, observations always agree with the law's predictions.

A law in itself, however, is simply a descriptive tool which gives little in the way of explaining the why of things. It's quite simple to calculate the gravitational force between two masses, but the exact nature of this force remains elusive (or better, we haven't found a way to explain it at microscopic distances - yet).

Another example can be Henry's law:

p = K*c

which expresses the equilibrium partial pressure of a gasesous solute as a function of the constant K and concentration c at a specified temperature. Henry's law is valid only for ideal solutions, and for dilute real ones (at low pressure); it also is the result of empirical observations and was enunciated in 1800. Despite its limits, Henry's law has many important practical applications, which include the design of distillation columns.

The complete explanation of this behaviour, however, arrived only much later with the kinetic theory of gases developed by Maxwell and Boltzmann in the second half of the 19th century and refined in later years.

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