Tag Archives: What is

What is petroleum, and where does it come from?

If you’re reading something related to fossil fuels here on ZME Science, chances are it somehow ties into the issue of pollution or global warming. Both are really important topics of discussion, especially right now as people all over the world band together to fix the very real, very dangerous consequences our fossil-fuel-centric economies are having on the climate.

Oil barrels.

Image credits Flickr / Olle Svensson.

But it’s undeniable that fossil fuels allowed our societies to dramatically change in a very short span of time. Using them, people could bring much more energy to bear in shaping our environment than previously possible. Energy means tractors pull plows instead of oxen, cars instead of carriages, steel mills instead of blacksmiths, iPhones instead of carrier pigeons. More available energy makes everybody richer, better fed, and longer-living than ever before.

We’re now at a point where we can/should opt out of fossil fuels and into other, cleaner and more efficient sources of energy; but we’re not going to talk about that right now. Today we’re going to take a look at what fossil fuels are to understand why they had such an effect on society. And we’ll be starting with the one we’re probably most familiar with in our day-to-day life.

What is petroleum

Petroleum (from the old Greek petra, meaning stone and oleum meaning oil), also known as crude oil, is a fluid mix of liquid and gaseous hydrocarbons, inorganic chemical elements, and physical impurities. It usually comes laced with a hearty serving of bacteria to boot. While romantic images or old-timey movies about daring derrickmen show all crude oil to be pitch-black, it’s not uncommon to see dark brown oil or for it to take yellow, red, even green hues based on its chemical composition.

Green petroleum from McClintock Well 1, the oldest oil well still in production.
Image credits Drake Well Museum.

Oil composition actually varies so widely that one of the most used crude oil classification standards is by production area (e.g. Oman-Tapis oil, West Texas Intermediate oil, so on). Two other important classifications systems rely on density (light/heavy oil) or sulfur content (sweet/sour).

Crude oil is one of the most important hydrocarbons today, and it literally keeps our industries running both as an energy source and a critical raw material. It forms deep underground, and (generally) only rarely makes an appearance topside without our help. Its choice of neighborhood, chemical composition, and the fact that crude oil has a bit of a body odor issue, all come down to:

How it forms

[panel style=”panel-info” title=”The short of it:” footer=””]

    1. Deposition: a large quantity of organic matter winds up in a (geologically-speaking) confined area.
    2. Burial: this matter gets buried under sediment, and subsequently ‘sinks’ lower into the crust.
    3. Diagenesis: subjected to extreme pressure and high temperatures, this matter gets cooked into kerogen — a wax-like substance which is basically baby-crude-oil.
    4. Catagenesis / Cracking: if the right window of pressure and heat is maintained on the kerogen, it will be further cooked into fluid hydrocarbons (oil and gas).
    5. Reservoir formation: these new hydrocarbons, being fluid and less dense, are pumped up by the weight of rocks pressing down on them — until they hit a rock they can’t pass through and form a deposit.

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Steps 1&2 — Deposition and Burial

Like all other fossil fuels, crude oil is formed from things which used to be alive a long time ago. In theory, any dead plant or animal can turn into petroleum over millions of years but it’s mostly algae, plankton, and zooplankton which formed the crude oil we use today. What those three have in common (and lends them well to oil-formation) is that they’re aquatic. Living in the ocean helps a lot with points 1. and 2.: on the one hand, marine environments are teeming with nutrients and usually support a lot of biomass. On the other hand, there’s more sediment in watery environments than on dry land (think of how much new soil the Nile deposits every time it floods).

Mississippi Delta Sediment Plume.

Or the Mississippi, even when it’s not flooding.
Image credits NASA Earth Observatory.

Making crude oil is kinda similar to making wine in that you need to let it sit but not breathe, or it will spoil — so both of these factors are critical for its formation. The process needs a lot of fresh (well, fresh-ish) organic matter. Since there are so many critters living in oceans, these environments can deliver the huge quantities of biomass needed (things die and sink to the bottom faster than bacteria can decompose them). Oceans can also muster the sediments required to cover biomass before it rots away in less-abundant areas. So overall, virtually all of the most important oil deposits formed on the bottom of ancient oceans and seas (which may be dry land today).

While there’s nothing explicitly prohibiting dry land environments from forming oil, the odds are stacked very highly against them. The main problem is that sediment mobility is severely limited on land compared to the ocean, so there’s nothing to insulate dead biomass from oxygen. For crude oil to form on land, you generally need a fast movement of sediments — think massive floods, landslides, mudflows, that sort of thing — or watery, muddy areas such as lakes and marshes. Plant resin can also kerogenize. However, deposits formed on dry land generally tend to form coal (from harder-to-decompose wood,) and their share in the global crude oil reserve is likely modest.

Step 3 — Diagenesis

As new sediments fall to the ocean’s floor over millions of years, their weight pushes down on our intrepid biomass deposit formed in steps 1&2. We’re talking pretty big pressures here — imagine holding a column of rock, gravel, sand a few kilometers/miles high on your shoulders, topped by an even higher column of water — which compress that matter hard enough for it to heat up. Under such conditions, the chemical bonds in the biomass start to break down and re-form into new, more heat-and-pressure-stable compounds.

Chlorophyll V-porphyrin.

Vanadium porphyrin in petroleum (left) and chlorophyll a (right).
Image via Wikimedia.

Long-chain biopolymers (such as those in proteins or carbohydrates) are the first ones to break down. The resulting bits then go on to mix with sediments to form rocks rich in organic carbon or shed water and simple hydrocarbon molecules (such as methanol), and condense into new polymers. As time passes, certain elements such as hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and sulphur tend to be weeded out of the mix, and the polymers tend towards aromatization (they form rings). These are denser (same material in a smaller space,) so they can better withstand the pressure. Then, the rings stack onto each other in sheets, increasing density even more.

This early stage of transformation results in a waxy substance known as kerogen, and a tar-like material known as bitumen.

Step 4 — Catagenesis / Cracking

A structure rich in kerogen and bitumen is known as a ‘source rock’ because this is where the oil will come from. As it keeps sinking lower into the crust, the kerogen in our source rock gets subjected to even more pressure, but that’s OK because it’s so dense that it can take it. However, it also gets hotter, and that’s what will finally turn it into petroleum.

Crude oils.

Light and medium crude oils from the Caucasus, the Middle East, Arabia, and France.
Image credits Wikimedia / Glasbruch2007.

What we perceive as heat is a motion of particles — the hotter something is, the more its atoms will bounce around and into each other. Heat is, if you zoom in close enough, kinetic energy. So when you pump heat into the nicely-stacked sheets of polymers in our kerogen, you make their atoms want to move around.  Eventually, if you pump enough heat into them, the structures become too energetic to remain stable and break apart into progressively smaller bits — heat “cracks” them open.

Ambiental pressure and temperature during the cracking process determine what the kerogen does: if temperatures are too low, nothing cracks. If temperatures are too high, oil gets shredded into short polymers and you get natural gas. The sweet-spot, or “oil window” for geologists, is somewhere between 50-150°C (122-302°F) depending on things like pressure and how rapidly the rock is warmed up.

Step 5 — Reservoir formation

At this point, the oil and gas are both liquid and mixed together, like an unopened can of soda. Being fluid and much less dense than the rocks around them, this hydrocarbon cocktail resulted from cracking will try to work its way upwards above to the surface.

Surface oil seep Slovakia.

Natural petroleum spring in Slovakia.
Image credits Wikimedia / Branork.

There are rocks all around it, however, so the oil can’t form lakes or rivers per say but has to travel through the pores and cracks of surrounding rocks in its merry way to the surface. Some rocks, such as sandstone or limestone, are especially porous and lend themselves well to transporting crude oil.

What usually happens, however, is that oil gets trapped under a layer of rock it can’t pass through, and will wait there until a drill head comes a-knocking.

To sum it up

So, to go from a dinosaur (more likely from a bunch of plankton) all the way to petroleum, you need a lot of time and quite a fortunate series of events: first, you need a lot of stuff to die in just the right spot and get buried under sediment in a hurry. This stack of biomass needs to get squished and baked into a source rock full of juicy bitumen and kerogen and then heated up — but not too much — to form oil. All of this needs to take place under a porous and permeable (meaning the pores are connected to each other so they can act like tiny pipelines) rock for the oil to travel through and accumulate in. And everything has to be covered with a cap rock (a seal), or some other mechanism has to be in place to prevent this oil from spilling up to the surface.

The good and bad about petroleum

So you know how plants like to hang around and photosynthesize and all that? Well, think of burning fossil fuels as reverse photosynthesis and you’re not far off from the mark. That’s what makes fossil fuels both awesome and awful at the same time, and here’s why:

A burning oil well in the Rumaila oilfields, Kuwait.

It’s because this thing burns with a blaze.
Kuwaiti firefighters fight to secure a burning oil well in the Rumaila oilfields, set ablaze by Iraqi military forces, 2003.
Image credits United States Marine Corps.

Photosynthesis requires a lot of energy: since oxygen loves binding to stuff and carbon is pretty into being bound, too, it takes a lot of oomph to pull them apart. What plants do is use solar energy to break CO2, munch on the carbon atom, and throw out the oxygen. This creates an energy imbalance since that oxygen really wants to get back with his old spark, the carbon atom — so plant matter, in effect, acts like a battery for carbon and the energy used in photosynthesis.

Any decent-sized petroleum deposit is formed from immense quantities of biomass, totaling millions possibly even trillions hours’ worth of photosynthesis, and the sum energy imbalance generated through them. When we burn oil, we re-combine carbon with oxygen and take that energy back.

The good news is that you extract the lion’s share of that initial energy (stored over the plants’ entire lifetimes) in a few moments — so fossil fuels are a very dense source of energy, an order of magnitude more powerful than what firewood or muscle can generate. The bad news is that you also release all those carbon atoms (stored over the plants’ entire lifetimes) in a few moments — so fossil fuels are a very dense source of greenhouse gasses.

Apart from use as fuel, petroleum is a cornerstone in industry. The pharmaceutical, chemical, and material industries, in particular, rely heavily on crude oil as the main source of a wide range of organic compounds. So even if we decouple our energy sector from oil, we’re sure to see it around for a long time to come.

Angel of Fascism.

Bound around the axe: what is fascism and why do societies turn to it

Heavily stigmatized in the aftermath of World War 2, “Fascism” is a term you don’t hear that much anymore — except thrown around in heated political debates as an ultimate insult. But what is fascism as a political system, and are the concerns that it may be making a comeback valid? Let’s find out.

Angel of Fascism.

Angel carrying the fasces in Piazza Augusto Imperatore, Rome, a vestige of Mussolini’s rule.
Image credits Anthony Majanlahti / Flickr.

Throughout history, people have envisioned and established a myriad of ways to order our societies and define social roles in the grand scheme of things. The shape these systems took, the power they held over various aspects of life, and their relationship to other political systems all evolved in accordance to several factors: a society’s leaning towards secularism or religiousness, traditionalism or liberalism, its overall level of education and ability to exchange ideas, and of course, technological capability.

The basics

Fascism actually emerged (in a coherent form) in Italy, not Nazi Germany. Its roots start to form in 1915 from a people marked by the death, horror, and the (soon to be) vittoria mutilata of the Great War, and it grew on the unprecedented technological and industrial progress of the 20th century. Since then, as Godwin’s tongue-in-cheek law perfectly exemplifies, “fascist” has become an almost derogatory term evoking rigidity and extremism of thought, allegiance to an oppressive single party, violence against anyone not aligned with the ideology, xenophobia, and an exclusion of the one it’s aimed at from any meaningful discussion in politics.

But beyond a few characteristics that define all fascist movements, they draw heavily from a people’s culture and can be very different from one another. So let’s take a look at what this political system stands for, what circumstances led to its creation, and what place it has in the world today.

First things first: political analysts usually classify ideologies as wings on a “left-right” spectrum. At their best, the left wing deals in change, progressive ideas, believes the state has the responsibility to care for its citizens (things like basic income, state-owned health, emergency, education systems are at home on the left), are generally idealist and value equality. The right deals in conservative ideas, believes in free markets as well as minimal state interference and regulation (ultra-free markets, private health, emergency, and education systems thrive under right-wing rule). The right emphasizes equity over equality.

I’ll also take a cue from the guys at PoliticalCompass and factor in a social spectrum to get a better understanding of fascism. So in addition to the left-right poles, we’ll also put in an authoritarian-libertarian scale which shows how different governments go about their business: by pooling power within the ruling body and/or a central figure (authoritarian), or by allowing people greater freedoms, thereby giving away their power (libertarian). Now that we have our bearings, let’s talk fascism.

What is fascism?

Politicompass.

The two spectra — left/right and authoritarian/liberal — can be superimposed to give you an idea of where your allegiance lies on the political spectrum — these are my results. If you’re curious about where you fall, go take the test on The Political Compass.
Image credits The Political Compass.

It’s pretty hard to determine the exact boundaries of fascism. In broad lines, however, it’s considered to fall on the heavily authoritarian right as it maintains social order and opposes equality — here it’s in the top bits of the blue area. In other words, fascism relies on a mix of government or single leader with virtually absolute power in society and strong private property that only remains free while it serves the party’s interests.

It also has deep, super-nationalistic and racist, even xenophobic undertones, creating a sense of ‘us vs them’, blaming the perceived other for the country’s hardships, eventually encouraging segregation and violence against this ‘other’ as the way forward.

From a socio-economic standpoint, fascism is highly polarizing: exceedingly rich and powerful industrialists and politicians rule at the top, followed by upper, middle, then lower classes, with one or more groups of non-citizens at the bottom. But none of these truly define fascism (in fact, we can see many of its influences in today’s politics, even though we don’t live under fascism).

What fascism usually does is reject liberal, socialist, and conservative thoughts and replaces them with a complex net of cultural and ideological tenants. This cultural element is why it’s so hard to tell exactly where fascism begins and ends. Fascist rulers attain the people’s mandate by pointing at the glories of yore and their subsequent decadence, instilling a sense of superiority over other peoples (the corruption of the Ubermensch symbol), and insisting that only a strong country united under a strong leader can retake their place on the world stage (“Make America great again“) all of which takes the shape of unique cultural levels in every society.

Fascism America Sticker.

It has a unique flavor wherever it pops up.
Image credits Robert F. W. Whitlock / Wikimedia.

The final traits of fascism are heavy propaganda, a rejection of globalization and attainment of autarky, a mixture of philosophies and ideas from the left and right into its ideology and, perhaps it’s most extreme far-right trait, the aim to have a group of superior people dominate society and purge inferior humans.

Tying it all together, the very name of “fascism” is probably what symbolizes this ideology the best. The word is rooted in the Latin word fasces, which were bundles of rods usually tied around an axe with the blade sticking out. Fasces were issued to Roman magistrates and symbolized power. And in a way, that’s what fascism is: a people inescapably tied to a single cause, vesting absolute power and the decision of life and death in a leader’s personal agenda — whether willingly or by force.

One interesting observation you can make from the four quadrants in the above compass is that it’s not communism which is ideologically opposite fascism — the two are actually pretty similar apart from the fact that communism rejects traditional elites while fascists work them into the new social order. The ideological opposite of fascism is liberal socialism. That’s some food for thought.

How does fascism emerge?

The first truly fascist party emerged in Italy in the 1920s. To give you some context, at the conclusion of the World War I Italy lost an estimated 400,000 soldiers, and almost four million of the country’s men were wounded, captured, or suffered disease and disability after the conflict in the army alone — in a country of 37 million people at the time. That’s over 10% of the whole population. It’s a huge ratio.

For all their hardship and loss, the Italians also felt they were cheated out of the war promises the Entente (basically the allies in WWI) made. Initially allying with Germany and Austro-Hungary to defend against French expansion in Tunisia, one of their African colonies, the Italians secretly agreed to join the Entente in the London Pact — on the condition that they are given back north-eastern Italy from the Austrians. After the treaty was signed, however, UK diplomats figured that they didn’t actually have any beef with the Austrians. Long story short, Italy didn’t get what it was promised when the Treaty of Versailles, which ended WWI, was signed.

Rethondes Wagon de l'Armistice.

A treaty signed in this very railway car.
Image credits Nicklaarakkers / Wikimedia.

This could be seen as the first spark to ignite fascism in Italy at the time. Public confidence and approval of the then-Prime Minister Vittorio Orlando tanked as people regarded him too weak to serve Italian interests. Poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, the one who coined the term “vittoria mutilata,” started to vocally criticize Orlando’s weakness and the treachery of foreign powers. He gathered a small force of armed Italians and actually attacked and conquered the city of Fiume in September 1919, then part of Austria — a 90% ethnic Italian town that the country was promised but didn’t receive as war reparations. The town subsequently issued what amounted to a fascist charter and enjoyed autonomy for a while.

And it may well be this charter that took fascism, in the public’s opinion, from one of many possibilities to a solution. As always, there was still internal resistance, but for many people disillusioned with Italy’s current government, angry about what they perceived as unfairness by external powers, and willing to see Italy’s sacrifices properly repaid, this new political idea actually delivered — it managed, with 2,000 or so armed men, to capture a city that the previous government couldn’t bring back with a whole war.

Germany also had to pay huge war reparations and suffer international shame (it was a thing back then) following the end of WWI, and unlike Italy, they also had to contend with the fact that they actually lost. The reparations ruined Germany’s economy, and I mean actually ruined — inflation was so high in post-war Germany that you needed a literal wheelbarrow of cash to buy a loaf of bread. People would even burn money in stoves to heat their homes during the winter since it was less expensive than buying coal or firewood.

In these conditions, it’s not that hard to understand how desperate people would look to a strong government to solve their problems.

While it’s easy to judge past generations on their actions, we have the benefit of hindsight on our side. Even so, the threat of fascism still looms over us, and will likely haunt our elections and governments for a while still.

Fascism today

Invaders against Fascism.

Image credits Lauren Manning / Flickr.

Fascism was made possible by the breathtaking speed of technological advance in the 20th century, one which overcame society’s ability to adapt. People wanted safety and more bountiful lives following the horrors of the Great War, and autocrats scrambling for ever-more power, with massive industrial and infrastructure complexes behind them, could provide that.

Technology such as radios let the government speak directly to the people, and nobody knew not to trust their government yet so they did the unthinkable things their leaders said would bring about a better world — and are we really the ones to judge them? We are living in an increasingly illiberal world, where our hate and fear push more autocratic leaders into the spotlight. We fear our way of life is under attack by terrorists, more and more people are struggling with poverty, and most people haven’t yet learned not to trust that Facebook post from a random site claiming “immigrants are taking our jobs” and “causing crime” (both are false) — so we do the unthinkable things our leaders ask of us to bring about a better world.

Just as in those early days of economic and political uncertainty, we’re putting our faith in strong leaders who look willing to fight for our interests. A leader who comes with promises of a wealth, safety, a sense of purpose for all — and that’s perfectly understandable. But the people who promise you can have all that if you just kick out x minority, or if you reclaim your borders, the people who hate and discriminate — they won’t solve our problems. They won’t do anything except breed more hate and discrimination, more misery and hardship for those in need, more power and wealth for those who further their goals. Talking about the issue of fascism for The New York Times, Henry Scott Wallace wrote:

“They invariably put ‘money and power ahead of human beings.’ […] ‘They demand free enterprise, but are the spokesmen for monopoly and vested interest, […] claim to be super-patriots, but they would destroy every liberty guaranteed by the Constitution’.”

“They bloviate about putting America first, but it’s just a cover. ‘They use isolationism as a slogan to conceal their own selfish imperialism.’ They need scapegoats and harbor ‘an intensity of intolerance toward those of other races, parties, classes, religions, cultures, regions or nations’,” he concludes.

Today we do have the benefit of hindsight. We know what lies down the path of fascism, be it in America, in Russia, the UK, or any other country — if it takes root, this time it’s on us.

What is the scientific method: definition, steps, and pitfalls

In the simplest terms, the scientific method is a set of principles designed around observation and reasoning which aims to ensure that our understanding of the world is as accurate as possible. Scientists value verifiable and reproducible results more than anything else as the basis for knowledge. The scientific method (when done right) is a great way of getting opinions or preference out of the way of facts.

What is the scientific method

Knowing stuff is easy. The hook, as we’ve found through our blunderings in the world, is that only part of the things we know are true — and chafing the wheat, so to speak, can prove problematic. It mostly comes down to the fact that each of us harbors innate biases about the way things are in the world, be them a product of our biology, our upbringing, or simply of our limited perception of the universe. Thankfully, we’ve also come up with a set of principles to help overcome these biases and learn the truth about the world, one small step at a time. Because our fancy mental toolkits need a cool name, we’ve labeled that set of principles ‘the scientific method.’

But it’s not only for scientists. The method is a more organized version of the same deduction processes we use in everyday problem-solving and can help you in your day to day life. It’s great for getting to the root of things and eliminating add-on (but irrelevant) factors through repeated tests and tweaks to the object of your interest. That being said, let’s look at how it’s done.

Steps to the scientific method

[panel style=”panel-success” title=”To do science:” footer=””]

  1. Observe.
  2. Question and research.
  3. Hypothesize.
  4. Predict according to the hypothesis.
  5. Test.
  6. Observe the result. Fix hypothesis.
  7. Repeat 3 to 6 until your hypothesis matches the results.

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Observation is the basis of science as we understand it today and forms the first step in the scientific method. It can be something really simple and obvious, like “cats like to eat meat”, or something not readily apparent — “there is an infinite number of decimals in π,” for example.

Observations naturally lead to a question — “well, why do cats eat meat?” — and our attempt at answering this will first require looking at available data. This can come from your own previous observations, other scientists’ papers, and so on. So let’s say that while reading up on your cat’s culinary preferences, all you found was that “cats don’t eat spinach.” Previous experience with your pet also tells you that “cats like to drink milk.” Beyond that, not a word.

That didn’t answer your question, so you’re now in uncharted waters and an idea is forming in your mind — “cats only eat red and white food, since meat is red and milk is white.” That’s your hypothesis. It’s important to keep this hypothesis falsifiable, meaning there is a possible negative answer, so you can test it and see how it fares against reality.

You start doing that with a prediction. It sounds fancy, but it’s pretty simple and you probably do it all the time, anyway: prediction basically means drawing a logical conclusion as to how the world would behave if your hypothesis was true and if it wasn’t.

We predict that our cat will eat fresh tomatoes because they’re red, and some flour, because it’s white, but it will never eat cat-food since it’s… brownish, nor butter, which is yellow. That prediction is easily verifiable. Offer your cat the four foods and lo and behold, the tomatoes and flour are left untouched while the cat food is all gone and the butter seems nibbled on — the experiment’s results conflict with your hypothesis. Based on the new data, you can alter the hypothesis, create new predictions based on that, and re-take the test. Or you may have to reject it altogether.

It has its ups and downs.
Image credits Thebiologyprimer / Wikimedia.

To keep your work as spotless as possible, try to design your experiments in such a way as to contain a dependent variable — which stays constant — and an independent variable (which changes), so you can compare and isolate their effects. In the same way, try to use a control and an experimental group for comparison. Use both inductive and deductive reasoning to work on your hypothesis. Finally, when testing it, go for the falsifying experiment if you can. If your hypothesis holds true in a riskier experiment, it will do much more to confirm it that a slew of low-risk ones.

Although the scientific method aims at taking chance and bias out of the pursuit of knowledge, these can never be entirely eliminated — maybe one cat out there actually likes flour and tomatoes. Keep in mind that a single positive result doesn’t prove a hypothesis right, and one negative result doesn’t make it wrong. It’s all a matter of confidence and there are several degrees of confidence.

What is a hypothesis

Hypotheses are statements which are limited in scope and regard specific situations. The word is also used to refer to a concept before any experimental work was done to prove or disprove it. If your phone won’t power on, you might say “the battery is dead,” and that’s your hypothesis. Then you plug it in the charger and try again, thereby experimentally testing the hypothesis. If it still doesn’t work you’ll try another one — “the screen is broken, it needs to be repaired.”

What is a scientific model

Models are hypotheses which are known to be at least of limited validity. That model of an atom we’re used to seeing, the Bohr model, isn’t what an atom looks like. But it’s illustrative and similar enough to the real thing (it accurately represents the energies of the quantum states of the electron in the hydrogen atom, but not its angular momentum — i.e. the shape is ok but it doesn’t show how all the pieces move) to be a good substitute in most situations — it’s a “model” of how things actually are.

What is a theory

Theories are frameworks of hypotheses which have been repeatedly confirmed through experiment. They’re not really proven correct per se, but they’ve never actually been proven wrong so they can’t be discarded. New discoveries usually fit into existing theories, and it’s only after one of these discoveries can’t be reconciled with it that scientists try to modify the theory. Sometimes theories become laws.

What is a ‘law’ of science

Laws are generally considered to be fundamental and universally relevant in their field of influence, though some laws have been modified over time as our understanding of the world became more refined. For example, the law of gravity (gravity works the same way almost everywhere) or the law of mass conservation (mass isn’t destroyed by chemical or physical transformations in an isolated system).

Common errors and limitations

One of the most fundamental errors is to mistake the hypothesis for the full explanation of a phenomenon or thing without performing any test. Even if it seems logical or of common sense that the hypothesis is true — until tested it is only a hypothesis. Thinkers as far back as ancient Greece have pointed out to this fallacy.

Another wrench commonly thrown in the scientific method is to ignore data which doesn’t support the result you’re after. Ideally, the experimenter should be unbiased. However, our brains are really good at justifying “something wrong” in certain data under strong personal beliefs or a perceived pressure to get a specific result. All data is equally important, and there is no such thing as a bad result in science.

A failure to account for errors may reveal discoveries that aren’t there or may hide legitimate findings. Always double-check your work.

By its very definition, the scientific method can’t be used to determine the truth of anything outside the physical world, like emotions or philosophical questions — although its principles can help explore these areas.

And finally, because the scientific method relies in great part on repetition and reiteration, some phenomena which can’t be repeated and/or measured again and again don’t lend very well to its use. If you’re trying to woo the focus of your affection, for example, and it goes poorly, you can’t restart in front of the same person and try again, over and over, until you find the best approach. The same person will still be influenced by what you said before. A new person will react differently.


That, in a nutshell, is the scientific theory. It’s a surprising mix of discipline in practice but flexibility in thinking to go with flexibility in practice but discipline in thinking. The scientific method is a way of constantly checking the validity of our reasoning while we go along, of knowing how we know. A list of check and balances which, when observed, should help you find the laws hidden in the reeds of happenstance.

Observe, deduce, test. Always take evidence over preference, and try to look at as few variables at a time as possible in your experiments. Remember that your hypotheses may turn out to be false, that your assumptions are working against you — if you want to find the scientific truth, always keep an eye out for something that might reduce the accuracy of your results, especially yourself.