Science: method or guess?

SRM Astrophilia
SRM Astrophilia
Published in
6 min readJan 24, 2022


“If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?”
Albert Einstein

Science, as to how we practice, is known for being driven by “empiricism” — the view that concepts hold only upon their experiencing. Scientists have waited for years before their hypothesis counts as scientific literature. For example, Peter Higgs thought of the “Higgs Boson” in 1960’s and waited for over 50 years for CERN to discover it. While empiricism cannot be argued against as anything less than the key feature of the scientific method, as something that makes science stand out from religion (a colloquy for later), it becomes for the sake of us being thorough academicians not to undermine the other steps. They are:

(a) Lisa observes,
(b) Develops a hypothesis or conjecture or postulate to explain what she observed,
(c) Collects evidence to support her hypothesis,
(d) Makes the inference from the observations, and
(e) Shares the results with her peers.

Lisa is then a scientist. We see that while (c) is the empirical step, it is not the first step. While (a) is, since it is devoid of any voluntary participation — prima facie (which is to say that if Lisa observes a falling ball, there is hardly anything about that verb she can do under the context of being credited as a scientist), the first thing that Lisa could do is to develop her hypothesis, (b). To excel, it is only best for a theorist to practice (b) dismissing (c), and same goes the other way around for an experimentalist. This is to say that Lisa should develop her hypothesis considering that it does not bother empiricism to validate it. This would require her to make a perfect marriage of thought and logic (mathematics), devoid of angles potentially wrong. Shouldn’t such a marriage only be a result of a rigorous effort? What if I say that both General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, the two pillars of modern physics, birthed from guesses! Wouldn’t that be the paramount irony in the philosophy of science? Would it not undermine all the effort and money we put in conducting science methodologically?

Image credit: P Chappatte/Globe Cartoon

Now, I will present the above suggested guesses. As one still requires the rigorous training to make them, I will henceforth use the German term “ansatz,” which translates loosely to “wise guess.”

In the June of 1905, Einstein published his seminal paper, “on the electrodynamics of moving bodies,” that presented a promising challenge to Newtonian physics (NP), the convention at the time. This paper laid the grounds for General Relativity which then demolished NP from its roots. In 1905 paper, Einstein defined the second of his two principles as, “any ray of light moves in the ‘stationary’ system of co-ordinates with the determined [speed] ‘c’ [speed of light], whether the ray be emitted by a stationary or by a moving body.” In non-esoteric words, basically, he set the upper limit to the speed that any object could attain as “c.” Why did he do that? Well, the immediate answer would be “because considering ‘c’ fixes the then incomplete physics.” True that — but the essence of my question lies: “what enabled him to use ‘c,’ specifically.” The answer, as the introduction suggests, is nothing! Now you might say that “c” wasn’t a random number after all. Maxwell’s equations in 1865 and Michelson-Morley's experiment in 1887 knew it as the speed of light. Nonetheless, “c” was disposed to Einstein just like any other constant. Thus, its consideration by him was an ansatz!

One further reason to think so is that he didn’t mention any reference to support the principle. This reminds me of an episode from my time at MIT — Dave Kaiser asked me to referee Einstein’s manuscript, to which I recommended revision as it did not support the principle and had redundancies, only to discover later that it was accepted by none other than Planck, whom I will mention as the father of Quantum Mechanics in a while, in none other than “Annalen der Physik,” the leading German physics journal at the time. Just a side note: much later, after the empirical validation of his General Relativity, Einstein himself commented on his 1905 paper as poorly written and that the two principles were, in fact, one. Until now in this article, I have shown how Einstein made ansatz lead to the formulation of General Relativity. Now I will show how Planck does the same for Quantum Physics.

By the end of the 19th century, Physics was considered solved apart from a few problems, one among which was the Ultraviolet Catastrophe or the Blackbody Radiation Problem. Background: Objects radiate over the spectrum of wavelengths with different intensities of individual wavelengths, forming the plot type mentioned. It turns out that the mean of the plot can be maneuvered to left or right only by changing the temperature of the object. This is to say that the radiation intensities depend only on the temperature of the object and not its composition — a strange discovery in physics — yet not the problem. Problem: While the then physics (Maxwell’s laws) estimated the intensities as observed for the longer wavelengths, it failed to estimate the left-to-mean dip suggesting the abundance of ultraviolet radiation, thus the “ultraviolet catastrophe.” Planck solved the problem in 1900. He had been working on it for years; he might have lacked conventional approaches to proceed, which would have inspired him to try substituting “n x E” instead of “E” in his calculations (where “n” and “E” represent an integer and energy, respectively), which then worked! “n” implies that the energy is quantized by nature, thus the “Quantum Mechanics.” Thus, its consideration by him was an ansatz.

The ultraviolet catastrophe is the error at short wavelengths in the Rayleigh–Jeans law (depicted as “classical theory” in the graph)

One further reason to think so is that he kept humble throughout his life about taking the credit. If an apparent example is required, again around the birth of Quantum Mechanics, what best could be than the statistical formulation of the Copenhagen Interpretation (CI) by Max Born in 1926! It is worth noting here that the birth of Quantum Mechanics wasn’t a single-person job; it was a collective effort from physicists such as Planck, Einstein, Niels Bohr, Erwin Schrödinger, Werner Heisenberg, Max Born and Paul Dirac. Background: In 1925, Heisenberg and Born formulated Quantum Mechanics in its matrix version. Soon, Schrödinger independently formulated a version based on his wavefunction, which he took as the description of the particle. While the two versions were realized to be equivalent in no time, what remained an enigma was the meaning of the wavefunction. From Schrödinger’s equation, the nature of the wavefunction was, in fact, imaginary. The very real existence of a particle questioned how a wavefunction could be its description, as after all, the wavefunction solved for the particle. Born suggested that it was the square of the wavefunction that indeed determined the probability of discovering the particle in certain states. Why only square, why not cube or anything else? Squaring by him was an ansatz!

Image credits: The Solvay Confrence website

In this article, I have presented three ansatze, one about the birth of General Relativity and two about that of Quantum Mechanics. Apparently, the takeaway does not seem healthy — if significant science is supposed to happen by guess as well, the effort and funding we dedicate to it are undermined. Can you object to this? If you can — I can, you will realize that the essence of science comes from its strength to defend itself.

Divyansh Mansukhani is the Cofounder Consultant for Astrophilia. He holds a master’s in Philosophy from the University of Glasgow, and is an avid writer about the History and Philosophy of Science.

“In the article, I raise a question against the reputation of science only to inflict within the minds of my readers a defence for science — so that they realize the strength of science.”