What Is a Scientific Theory?

Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images
Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

In casual conversation, people often use the word theory to mean "hunch" or "guess": If you see the same man riding the northbound bus every morning, you might theorize that he has a job in the north end of the city; if you forget to put the bread in the breadbox and discover chunks have been taken out of it the next morning, you might theorize that you have mice in your kitchen.

In science, a theory is a stronger assertion. Typically, it's a claim about the relationship between various facts; a way of providing a concise explanation for what's been observed. The American Museum of Natural History puts it this way: "A theory is a well-substantiated explanation of an aspect of the natural world that can incorporate laws, hypotheses and facts."

For example, Newton's theory of gravity—also known as his law of universal gravitation—says that every object, anywhere in the universe, responds to the force of gravity in the same way. Observational data from the Moon's motion around the Earth, the motion of Jupiter's moons around Jupiter, and the downward fall of a dropped hammer are all consistent with Newton's theory. So Newton's theory provides a concise way of summarizing what we know about the motion of these objects—indeed, of any object responding to the force of gravity.

A scientific theory "organizes experience," James Robert Brown, a philosopher of science at the University of Toronto, tells Mental Floss. "It puts it into some kind of systematic form."

A SUCCESSFUL THEORY EXPLAINS

A theory's ability to account for already known facts lays a solid foundation for its acceptance. Let's take a closer look at Newton's theory of gravity as an example.

In the late 17th century, the planets were known to move in elliptical orbits around the Sun, but no one had a clear idea of why the orbits had to be shaped like ellipses. Similarly, the movement of falling objects had been well understood since the work of Galileo a half-century earlier; the Italian scientist had worked out a mathematical formula that describes how the speed of a falling object increases over time. Newton's great breakthrough was to tie all of this together. According to legend, his moment of insight came as he gazed upon a falling apple in his native Lincolnshire.

In Newton's theory, every object is attracted to every other object with a force that’s proportional to the masses of the objects, but inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. This is known as an “inverse square” law. For example, if the distance between the Sun and the Earth were doubled, the gravitational attraction between the Earth and the Sun would be cut to one-quarter of its current strength. Newton, using his theories and a bit of calculus, was able to show that the gravitational force between the Sun and the planets as they move through space meant that orbits had to be elliptical.

Newton's theory is powerful because it explains so much: the falling apple, the motion of the Moon around the Earth, and the motion of all of the planets—and even comets—around the Sun. All of it now made sense.

A SUCCESSFUL THEORY PREDICTS

A theory gains even more support if it predicts new, observable phenomena. The English astronomer Edmond Halley used Newton's theory of gravity to calculate the orbit of the comet that now bears his name. Taking into account the gravitational pull of the Sun, Jupiter, and Saturn, in 1705, he predicted that the comet, which had last been seen in 1682, would return in 1758. Sure enough, it did, reappearing in December of that year. (Unfortunately, Halley didn't live to see it; he died in 1742.) The predicted return of Halley's Comet, Brown says, was "a spectacular triumph" of Newton's theory.

In the early 20th century, Newton's theory of gravity would itself be superseded—as physicists put it—by Einstein's, known as general relativity. (Where Newton envisioned gravity as a force acting between objects, Einstein described gravity as the result of a curving or warping of space itself.) General relativity was able to explain certain phenomena that Newton's theory couldn't account for, such as an anomaly in the orbit of Mercury, which slowly rotates—the technical term for this is "precession"—so that while each loop the planet takes around the Sun is an ellipse, over the years Mercury traces out a spiral path similar to one you may have made as a kid on a Spirograph.

Significantly, Einstein’s theory also made predictions that differed from Newton's. One was the idea that gravity can bend starlight, which was spectacularly confirmed during a solar eclipse in 1919 (and made Einstein an overnight celebrity). Nearly 100 years later, in 2016, the discovery of gravitational waves confirmed yet another prediction. In the century between, at least eight predictions of Einstein's theory have been confirmed.

A THEORY CAN EVOLVE, MERGE, OR BE REPLACED

And yet physicists believe that Einstein's theory will one day give way to a new, more complete theory. It already seems to conflict with quantum mechanics, the theory that provides our best description of the subatomic world. The way the two theories describe the world is very different. General relativity describes the universe as containing particles with definite positions and speeds, moving about in response to gravitational fields that permeate all of space. Quantum mechanics, in contrast, yields only the probability that each particle will be found in some particular location at some particular time.

What would a "unified theory of physics"—one that combines quantum mechanics and Einstein's theory of gravity—look like? Presumably it would combine the explanatory power of both theories, allowing scientists to make sense of both the very large and the very small in the universe.

A THEORY CAN ALSO BE A FACT

Let's shift from physics to biology for a moment. It is precisely because of its vast explanatory power that biologists hold Darwin's theory of evolution—which allows scientists to make sense of data from genetics, physiology, biochemistry, paleontology, biogeography, and many other fields—in such high esteem. As the biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky put it in an influential essay in 1973, "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution."

Interestingly, the word evolution can be used to refer to both a theory and a fact—something Darwin himself realized. "Darwin, when he was talking about evolution, distinguished between the fact of evolution and the theory of evolution," Brown says. "The fact of evolution was that species had, in fact, evolved [i.e. changed over time]—and he had all sorts of evidence for this. The theory of evolution is an attempt to explain this evolutionary process." The explanation that Darwin eventually came up with was the idea of natural selection—roughly, the idea that an organism's offspring will vary, and that those offspring with more favorable traits will be more likely to survive, thus passing those traits on to the next generation.

WE HAVE CONFIDENCE IN THEORIES

Many theories are rock-solid: Scientists have just as much confidence in the theories of relativity, quantum mechanics, evolution, plate tectonics, and thermodynamics as they do in the statement that the Earth revolves around the Sun.

Other theories, closer to the cutting-edge of current research, are more tentative, like string theory (the idea that everything in the universe is made up of tiny, vibrating strings or loops of pure energy) or the various multiverse theories (the idea that our entire universe is just one of many). String theory and multiverse theories remain controversial because of the lack of direct experimental evidence for them, and some critics claim that multiverse theories aren't even testable in principle. They argue that there's no conceivable experiment that one could perform that would reveal the existence of these other universes.

Sometimes more than one theory is put forward to explain observations of natural phenomena; these theories might be said to "compete," with scientists judging which one provides the best explanation for the observations.

"That's how it should ideally work," Brown says. "You put forward your theory, I put forward my theory; we accumulate a lot of evidence. Eventually, one of our theories might prove to obviously be better than the other, over some period of time. At that point, the losing theory sort of falls away. And the winning theory will probably fight battles in the future."

The Science Behind Why the Earth Isn't Flat

Earth as captured from near the lunar horizon by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter in 2015.
Earth as captured from near the lunar horizon by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter in 2015.
NASA

On March 24, 2018, flat-earther Mike Hughes set out prove that the Earth is shaped like a Frisbee. The plan: Strap himself to a homemade steam-powered rocket and launch 52 miles into sky above California’s Mojave Desert, where he'd see Earth's shape with his own eyes.

It didn't matter that astronauts like John Glenn and Neil Armstrong had been to space and verified that the Earth is round; Hughes didn't believe them. According to The Washington Post, Hughes thought they were "merely paid actors performing in front of a computer-generated image of a round globe."

The attempt, ultimately, was a flop. He fell back to Earth with minor injuries after reaching 1875 feet—not even as high as the tip of One World Trade Center. For the cost of his rocket stunt ($20,000), Hughes could have easily flown around the world on a commercial airliner at 35,000 feet.

Hughes isn't alone in his misguided belief: Remarkably, thousands of years after the ancient Greeks proved our planet is a sphere, the flat-Earth movement seems to be gaining momentum. "Theories" abound on YouTube, and the flat-Earth Facebook page has some 194,000 followers.

Of course, the Earth isn't flat. It's a sphere. There is zero doubt about this fact in the real, round world. To say the evidence is overwhelming is an understatement.

HOT SPINNING BODIES

Not every celestial body is a sphere, but round objects are common in the universe: In addition to Earth and all other known large planets, stars and bigger moons are also ball-shaped. These objects, and billions of others, have the same shape because of gravity, which pulls everything toward everything else. All of that pulling makes an object as compact as it can be, and nothing is more compact than a sphere. Say, for example, you have a sphere of modeling clay that is exactly 10 inches in diameter. No part of the mass is more than 5 inches from the center. That's not the case with any other shape—some part of the material will be more than 5 inches from the center of the mass. A sphere is the smallest option.

Today the Earth is mostly solid with a liquid outer core, but when the planet was forming, some 4.5 billion years ago, it was very hot and behaved like more like a fluid—and was subject to the squishing effects of gravity.

And yet, the Earth isn't a perfect sphere; it bulges slightly at the equator. "Over a long time-scale, the Earth acts like a highly viscous fluid," says Surendra Adhikari, a geophysicist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The Earth has been spinning since it was formed, and "if you have a spinning fluid, it will bulge out due to centrifugal forces." You can see evidence for this at the equator, where the Earth's diameter is 7926 miles—27 miles larger than at the poles (7899 miles). The difference is tiny—just one-third of 1 percent.

THE SHADOW KNOWS

The ancient Greeks figured out that Earth was a sphere 2300 years ago by observing the planet's curved shadow during a lunar eclipse, when the Earth passes between the Sun and the Moon. Some flat-Earth believers claim the world is shaped like a disk, perhaps with a wall of ice along the outer rim. (Why no one has ever seen this supposed wall, let alone crashed into it, remains unexplained.) Wouldn't a disk-shaped Earth also cast a round shadow? Well, it would depend on the orientation of the disk. If sunlight just happened to hit the disk face-on, it would have a round shadow. But if light hit the disk edge-on, the shadow would be a thin, straight line. And if the light fell at an oblique angle, the shadow would be a football–shaped ellipse. We know the Earth is spinning, so it can't present one side toward the Sun time after time. What we observe during lunar eclipses is that the planet's shadow is always round, so its shape has to be spherical.

The ancient Greeks also knew Earth's size, which they determined using the Earth's shape. In the 2nd century BCE, a thinker named Eratosthenes read that on a certain day, the people of Syene, in southern Egypt, reported seeing the Sun directly overhead at noon. But in Alexandria, in northern Egypt, on that same day at the same time, Eratosthenes had observed the Sun being several degrees away from overhead. If the Earth were flat, that would be impossible: The Sun would have to be the same height in the sky for observers everywhere, at each moment in time. By measuring the size of this angle, and knowing the distance between the two cities, Eratosthenes was able to calculate the Earth's diameter, coming up with a value within about 15 percent of the modern figure.

And when Columbus set sail from Spain in 1492, the question wasn't "Would he fall off the edge of the world?"—educated people knew the Earth was round—but rather, how long a westward voyage from Europe to Asia would take, and whether any new continents might be found along the way. During the Age of Exploration, European sailors noticed that, as they sailed south, "new" constellations came into view—stars that could never be seen from their home latitudes. If the world were flat, the same constellations would be visible from everywhere on the Earth's surface.

Finally, in 1522, Ferdinand Magellan's crew became the first people to circle the globe. Like Columbus, Magellan also set off from Spain, in 1519, heading west—and kept generally going west for the next three years. The expedition wound up back at the starting point (though without Magellan, who was killed during a battle in the Philippines). And speaking of ships and seafaring: One only needs to watch a tall ship sailing away from port to see that its hull disappears before the top of its mast. That happens because the ship is traveling along a curved surface; if the Earth were flat, the ship would just appear smaller and smaller, without any part of it slipping below the horizon.

THE EVIDENCE IS ALL AROUND (AND ALL ROUND)

But you don't need a ship to verify the Earth's shape. When the Sun is rising in, say, Moscow, it's setting in Los Angeles; when it's the middle of the night in New Delhi, the Sun is shining high in the sky in Chicago. These differences occur because the globe is constantly spinning, completing one revolution per day. If the Earth were flat, it would be daytime everywhere at once, followed by nighttime everywhere at once.

You also experience the Earth's roundness every time you take a long-distance flight. Jetliners fly along the shortest path between any two cities. "We use flight paths that are calculated on the basis of the Earth being round," Adhikari says. Imagine a flight from New York to Sydney: It would typically head northwest, toward Alaska, then southwest toward Australia. On the map provided in your airline's in-flight magazine, that might look like a peculiar path. But wrap a piece of string around a globe, and you'll see that it’s the shortest possible route.

"If the Earth were flat," Adhikari says, "the trajectory would be completely different." How different depends on which way the globe is sliced into a flattened map, but if it looked like it does on a Mercator-projection map, it might head east and pass over Africa.

Engineers and architects also take the Earth's curvature into account when building large structures. A good example is the towers that support long suspension bridges such as the Verrazano Narrows bridge in New York City. Its towers are slightly out of parallel with each other, the tops being more than 1.5 inches further apart than their bases. If the Earth were flat, the bottom of the towers would be separated by the exact same distance as the top of the towers; the planet's curvature forces the tops of the towers apart.

And for the last half-century, we've had eyewitness and photographic proof of the Earth's shape. In December 1968, the crew of Apollo 8 left Earth for the Moon. When they looked out of the Command Module windows, they saw a blue-and-white marble suspended against the blackness of space. On Christmas Eve, lunar module pilot William Anders snapped the famous "Earthrise" photograph. It gave us an awe-inspiring perspective of our round planet that was unprecedented in human history—but it wasn't a surprise to anyone.

How Long to Steep Your Tea, According to Science

iStock
iStock

The tea in your cabinet likely has vague instructions about how long to steep the leaves. Bigelow, for instance, suggests two to four minutes for black tea, and one to three minutes for green tea. According to Lipton, you should "try singing the National Anthem" while waiting for black tea leaves to infuse.

But while it's true that tea brewed for 30 seconds is technically just as drinkable as a forgotten mug of tea that's been steeping for 30 minutes, drinkable shouldn't be your goal. Taste and—depending on the tea you're drinking—antioxidant and caffeine levels all depend on the amount of time the leaves are in contact with the water. So how early is too early to pluck out a tea bag, and how long can you leave it in before passing the point of no return?

THE SCIENCE OF STEEPING

To achieve the perfect timing, you first need to understand the chemical process at work when you pour hot water over tea leaves. Black, green, white, and oolong tea all come from the leaves and buds of the same plant, Camellia sinensis. (Herbal teas aren't considered "true teas" because they don't come from C. sinensis.) The teas are processed differently: Green and white tea leaves are heated to dry them, limiting the amount of oxidation they get, while black and oolong tea leaves are exposed to oxygen before they're dried, creating the chemical reactions that give the tea its distinct color and flavor. Damaging the tea leaves—by macerating them, rolling them gently, or something in between—helps expose the chemicals inside their cells to varying levels of oxygen.

Both green and black teas contain a lot of the same chemical compounds that contribute to their flavor profiles and nutritional content. When the leaves are submerged in hot water, these compounds leach into the liquid through a process called osmotic diffusion, which occurs when there's fluid on both sides of a selectively permeable membrane—in this case, the tea leaf. Compounds on the surface of the leaf and in the interior cells damaged by processing will diffuse into the surrounding liquid until the compounds in both the leaf and the water reach equilibrium. In other words, if given enough time to steep, the liquid in your mug will become just as concentrated with tea compounds as the liquid in your tea leaves, and the ratio will stay that way.

Osmotic diffusion doesn't happen all at once—different compounds enter the water at different rates based on their molecular weight. The light, volatile chemicals that contribute to tea's aroma and flavor profile dissolve the fastest, which is why the smell from a bag of tea leaves becomes more potent the moment you dunk it in water. The next group of compounds to infuse with the water includes the micronutrients flavanols and polyphenols, which are antioxidants, and caffeine. They're followed by heavier flavanols and polyphenols such as tannins, which are the compounds responsible for tea's bitter flavor. (They're also what make your mouth feel dry after drinking a glass of wine.) Tea also has amino acids like theanine, which can offset the sharpness of tannins.

Water temperature is another factor to take into consideration when steeping your tea. High water temperature creates more kinetic energy, which encourages the compounds to dissolve. "The heat helps you to extract the compounds out of the tea leaves," Shengmin Sang, a North Carolina A&T State University researcher who studies the chemistry of tea, tells Mental Floss. "If you put it into cold water or low-temperature water, the efficiency to extract these compounds out of the leaves will be much lower." But not all water is equal: Bigelow Tea recommends using water at a rolling boil for black tea, and barely boiling water for green tea.

LOOSE LEAF VS. TEA BAGS

Osmotic diffusion takes place whether you use loose leaves or tea bags, but there are some notable differences between the two. When given room to expand, loose tea leaves swell to their full capacity, creating more room for water to flow in and extract all those desirable compounds. Tea that comes prepackaged in a bag, on the other hand, only has so much room to grow, and the quality suffers as a result. This is why some tea companies have started selling tea in roomier, pyramid-shaped bags, though the size matters more than the shape.

But even before the tea touches the water, there's a difference in quality. Loose leaf tea usually consists of whole leaves, while most teabags are filled with broken pieces of tea leaves called dust or fannings, which have less-nuanced flavors and infuse fewer antioxidants than whole leaves, no matter how long you let them steep.

So if you have a choice, go with loose leaf. But if tea bags are all you have on hand, don't bother adjusting your brewing method: The difference in taste and antioxidants isn't something that can be fixed with a few extra minutes, and according to Sang, you should follow the same steeping times for both tea bags and loose leaf.

To calculate the perfect brew times for what's in your mug, first consider what you want most out of your drink.

IF YOU DRINK TEA TO BE HEALTHY

Suggested steeping time: 2 minutes, 30 seconds to 5 minutes

Tea leaves are packed with beneficial compounds. Research indicates that flavanols such as catechins and epicatechins, found in both green and black teas, help suppress inflammation and curb plaque build-up in arteries. Drinking tea may improve vascular reactivity, which dictates how well blood vessels adjust to stress. According an analysis of multiple tea-related studies published in the European Journal of Epidemiology in 2015, drinking three cups of tea a day reduces your risk of coronary heart disease by 27 percent, cardiac death by 26 percent, and total mortality by 24 percent. Polyphenolic antioxidants in tea may also protect against diabetes, depression, and liver disease.

Past research has shown that it takes 100 to 150 seconds to extract half the polyphenol content from green and black tea leaves. According to a study published in 2016 in the journal Beverages, you can get more polyphenols into your drink if you allow the leaves more time to steep. However, the returns may not be worth the extra effort: Most of the compounds the researchers measured after 10 minutes of steeping were extracted in the first 5 minutes.

Sang makes another argument for not waiting too long to drink your tea. Antioxidants are slightly unstable, which means they will eventually break down and lose their healthy properties after infusing with water. “After you extract the compounds from the tea bag, you can not keep the solution for too long,” he says. “Because these compounds are not stable, they will be oxidized. So if you brew it in the morning, then you drink it in the afternoon, that's not good.” This oxidation can occur even after the tea leaves are removed from the cup, so if your tea has been sitting out for a few hours, it's better to brew a new batch than to pop it in the microwave.

IF YOU DRINK TEA FOR THE CAFFEINE BOOST

Suggested steeping time: 3 to 5 minutes

Though less potent than its rival coffee, a properly brewed cup of tea packs a caffeine punch. According to a 2008 study published in the Journal of Analytical Toxicology [PDF], letting your tea brew for at least a few minutes has a big impact on the caffeine content. The study found that after brewing for one minute, a cup of regular Lipton black tea had 17 milligrams of caffeine per 6 ounces of water, 38 milligrams per 6 ounces after three minutes, and 47 milligrams per 6 ounces after five. (The nutritional information for Lipton black tea says a serving contains 55 milligrams of caffeine per 8 ounces, so it's pretty accurate.)

Some people may use those numbers as an excuse to steep their tea past the five-minute mark in an attempt to reach 100 percent dissolution. But a longer brewing time doesn't necessarily equal a stronger caffeine kick. Yes, more caffeine molecules will enter the tea, but so will other compounds like thearubigins. Caffeine works because it's perfectly shaped to bind to certain neuroreceptors in your brain, thus blocking the chemicals that tell you to feel tired. But caffeine is the right shape to bind to thearubigins as well, and if that happens first, less caffeine will get to those neuroreceptors. So if you're looking for a highly caffeinated cup of tea, you should remove the leaves after most of the caffeine has been extracted—after about three to five minutes—rather than waiting for every last milligram of caffeine to dissolve.

IF YOU DRINK TEA BECAUSE IT TASTES GOOD

Suggested steeping time: 1 to 3 minutes

There's nothing wrong with enjoying a cup of tea for taste alone. Flavor is the most subjective factor influenced by steeping times, but for the sake of simplicity, let's assume you prefer a pronounced tea taste that's not overshadowed by bitterness. To extract those more delicate flavors, you don't need to steep your tea leaves for very long at all. Some of the first volatile organic compounds to break down in tea are geraniol and phenylacetaldehyde, tied to a tea's floral aroma, and linalool and linalool oxide, which give tea its sweetness.

The other compounds we associate with tea's distinctive taste are tannins. They're the difference between an aromatic, fruity cup of tea and a bitter cup that needs to be diluted with milk before it's palatable. But tannins aren't all bad: Some people prefer their tea to have a bracing astringency. Because tannins are some of the last molecules to dissolve into tea, if you want to add some bitter complexity to your drink, steep your tea for a minute or two longer than you normally would. A good way to keep track of the strength of your tea is to look at the color: Like tannins, pigments are heavy compounds, so if you see your tea getting darker, that means it's getting stronger as well.

And what about herbal teas? Feel free to leave the leaves in as long as you like. Because herbal teas are high in aromatic compounds and low in tannins, drinkers can be more liberal with their steep times without worrying about getting that astringent taste. Some teas, like rooibos and chamomile, also contain antioxidants, which is another reason to take your time.

And if you're new to the world of tea and aren't sure what your preferences are, put a kettle on the stove and start experimenting.

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