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Experiment!: Planning, Implementing and Interpreting by Oivind Andersson

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4.5 The Message from the Plane

We began this chapter with a number of questions. One of them has not yet been explicitly answered: what is an experiment? Galileo saw an experiment as a question put before Nature. The secret of a great experiment lies more in how well that question is put than in the measurement technology used. For instance, an accurate timekeeper would add very little value to Aristotle's experiments with free fall in water because he posed the question in a way that muddled the problem. Precision can make it easier to interpret the results of an experiment that is well conceived, but if we want Nature to answer our questions a keen eye and a bit of imagination are more valuable assets than a precise instrument.

It would be preposterous to judge the scientific quality of an experiment by the sophistication of the measuring instrument used. In that case, weighing your fruit on the electronic scales at the supermarket would be far more valuable than many groundbreaking experiments in the history of science. The theoretical knowledge embodied in such scales is, after all, considerable. Since scientists seek to understand the world it is important for them to recognize trends and regularities. Scientific progress does not mainly lie in the acquisition of accurate numbers; it lies in the identification of the patterns behind the numbers. Galileo's experiment is important because it shows how a simple setup can unveil a distinct pattern in Nature.

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