In This Article Experiments in Physics

  • Introduction
  • Early Views
  • Tools for Theory Confirmation and Falsification
  • New Experimentalism
  • Theory-Ladenness of Experimentation
  • Experiments, Theory Formation, and Theory Change
  • Instruments and Measurements
  • Statistical Methods and Inferences
  • Experiments and Realism
  • Experimentation in Particle and High-Energy Physics
  • Simulations, Models, and Experiments in Physics
  • Failed Experiments
  • The 20th-Century Physicists on Experiments

Philosophy Experiments in Physics
Slobodan Perović
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 October 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0214


Experiments were at the heart of the 17th-century Scientific Revolution, so it is not surprising that their epistemological ramifications have been discussed by philosophers and scientists over the centuries, at times with exceptional passion. By and large, the debates on the nature, role, and aims of experimentation have been concerned with experiments in physics. Only very recently have experiments in biology and special sciences become a topic of major interest. With the advent of logical positivism in the 20th century, philosophical interest in science focused on the conceptual analysis of the logical structure of scientific theories and justification. Meanwhile, inspired by Newton’s view of the scientific method, inductivists argued that theories were straightforwardly induced from experimental results. In both cases, experiments were neglected as philosophically uninteresting tools that simply deliver data in order to confirm or induce theories. In the early 1980s, the New Experimentalism reacted to such oversimplified views of experimentation by carefully examining the complex relationship between theory and experiment. A multifaceted and lively debate was initiated, on the key question of whether—and in what sense—experimental evidence should be deemed theory-laden. A number of insightful epistemologically and methodologically motivated case studies of experimental instruments, techniques, and statistical methods have appeared, often in symbiosis with relevant historical studies. They have demonstrated that theories are often shaped by the experimental work, rather than the other way around, while theoretical changes and novel concepts emerge in the experiments that precede them. Various and often opposed philosophical perspectives on experimentation, ranging from empiricism to social constructivism, have emerged from such studies. The long-standing philosophical problem of realism has been reexamined in light of these new insights, while recent interest in simulation and modeling in science is currently merging with various strands of philosophy of experimentation. Although philosophy of experimentation has already thoroughly addressed the major areas of experimental physics and its history (a shining example being high-energy physics), condensed matter physics and current optics are two notable exceptions.

Early Views

The 17th-century Scientific Revolution established experiments as central to the scientific enterprise. Galileo 2000 is an exciting account of the early breakthrough in experimental physics by one of the key figures in the history of science. Empirically minded natural philosophers debated whether manipulating nature is the key to the scientific method, or whether natural reason has primacy over experimental testing. Shapin and Schaffer 1985 masterfully presents the era’s heated debate over the role of experiments in physics. Natural philosophers also discussed whether well-crafted experiments could decide between rival hypotheses, most famously in Bacon 2000. Bacon’s early empiricist account of experimental science, along with Newton’s defense of inductivism (see Newton 2003), shaped the views of future generations of philosophers and scientists on experiments in physics.

  • Bacon, Francis. The New Organon. Edited by Lisa Jardine and Michael Silverthorne. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139164030E-mail Citation »

    Originally published in 1620, this work develops the notion of experimentum crucis, a decisive experiment that can decide between two rival hypotheses which is still a hot topic.

  • Galilei, Galileo. Two New Sciences, Including Centers of Gravity and Force of Percussion. Translated by Stillman Drake. Toronto: Wall and Emerson, 2000.

    E-mail Citation »

    Originally published in 1638 as “Discorsi e dimostrazioni matematiche, intorno à due nuove scienze” (“The discourses and mathematical demonstrations relating to two new sciences”). This is Galileo’s account of his revolutionary experiments with the falling bodies. He carefully describes his instrumentation (e.g., water clocks) and explains his methodology including the ways in which he draws theoretical conclusions from the results. Volume also includes Drake’s History of Free Fall: Aristotle to Galileo.

  • Newton, Isaac. Newton’s Philosophy of Nature: Selections from His Writings. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger, 2003.

    E-mail Citation »

    Well-chosen passages from Newton’s published manuscripts and his correspondence pertinent to his view of experiments (Section 3 of Part I) and his inductivism in general (Parts I and II).

  • Shapin, Steven, and Simon Schaffer. Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985.

    E-mail Citation »

    A semi-popular account of the debate between an experimentalist and an empiricist on whether experimental manipulations are the best way to find out about the natural world. Descriptions of the experiments are suitable for nonspecialists.

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