In the previous entry I wrote how hard it is to establish a new idea, if the only existing option to get experimental confirmation is to become very, very precise. Fortunately, this is not the only option we have. Besides experimental confirmation, we can also attempt to test an idea theoretically. How is this done?
The best possibility is to set up a situation, in which the new idea creates a most spectacular outcome. In addition, it should be a situation in which older ideas yield a drastically different outcome. This sounds actually easier than it is. There are three issues to be taken care of.
The first two have something to do with a very important distinction. That of a theory and that of an observation. An observation is something we measure in an experiment or calculate if we play around with models. An observation is always the outcome if we set up something initially, and then look at it some time later. The theory should give a description of how the initial and the final stuff are related. This means that we look for every observation for a corresponding theory to give it an explanation. To this comes the additional modern idea of physics that there should not be an own theory for every observation. Rather, we would like to have a unified theory, i.e. one theory which explains all observations. This is not yet the case. But at least we have reduced it to a handful of theories. In fact, for anything going on inside our solar system we need so far just two: The standard-model of particle physics and general relativity.
Coming back to our idea, we have now the following problem. Since we do a gedankenexperiment, we are allowed to chose any theory we like. But since we are just a bunch of people with a bunch of computers we are not able to calculate all the possible observations a theory can describe. Not to mention all possible observations of all theories. And it is here, where the problem starts. The older ideas still exist, because they are not bad, but rather explain a huge amount of stuff. Hence, for many observations in any theory they will be still more than good enough. Thus, to find spectacular disagreement, we do not only need to find a suitable theory. We also need to find a suitable observation to show disagreement.
And now enters the third problem: We actually have to do the calculation to check whether our suspicion is correct. This is usually not a simple exercise. In fact, the effort needed can make such a calculation a complete master thesis. And sometimes even much more. Only after the calculation is complete we know whether the observation and theory we have chosen was a good choice. Because only then we know whether the anticipated disagreement is really there. And it may be that our choice was not good, and we have to restart the process.
Sounds pretty hopeless? Well, this is actually one of the reasons why physicists are famed for their tolerance to frustration. Because such experiences are indeed inevitable. But fortunately it is not as bad as it sounds. And that has something to do with how we chose the observation (and the theory). This I did not specify yet. And just guessing would indeed lead to a lot of frustration.
The thing which helps us to hit more often than not the right theory and observation is insight and, especially, experience. The ideas we have tell us about how theories function. I.e., our insights give us the ability to estimate what will come out of a calculation even without actually doing it. Of course, this will be a qualitative statement, i.e. one without exact numbers. And it will not always be right. But if our ideas are correct, it will work out usually. In fact, if we would regularly not estimate correctly, this should require us to reevaluate our ideas. And it is our experience which helps us to get from insights to estimates.
This defines our process to test our ideas. And this process can actually be well traced out in our research. E.g. in a paper from last year we collected many of such qualitative estimates. They were based on some much older, much more crude estimates published several years back. In fact, the newer paper already included some quite involved semi-quantitative statements. We then used massive computer simulations to test our predictions. They were indeed as good confirmed as possible with the amount of computers we had. This we reported in another paper. This gives us hope to be on the right track.
So, the next step is to enlarge our testbed. For this, we already came up with some new first ideas. However, these will be even more challenging to test. But it is possible. And so we continue the cycle.