Science Questions with Surprising Answers
Answers provided by
Dr. Christopher S. Baird

I watched a science documentary and then came up with my own theory. Where can I get it published?

Category: Society      Published: October 11, 2013

microscopic image of hair
Public Domain Image, source: CDC.

First of all, let's get the terminology right. In science, a "theory" is a set of mathematical equations that have been verified by experiment. In everyday language, we use the word "theory" to mean a guess, but in science it only means ideas that have already been confirmed by physical observations. In contrast, a "hypothesis" is the word used in science to label a set of mathematical equations that have not yet been tested. At best, what you have at this point is a hypothesis and not a theory.

Furthermore, an authentic scientific hypothesis must include a mathematical equation linking physical properties. Without an equation, a string of science words is closer to science fiction than to a genuine scientific hypothesis. For instance, the statement, "dogs are prettier than cats," is definitely not a scientific theory, and is not even a hypothesis. Making this statement more science sounding – "members of the Canis lupus familiaris subspecies are more aesthetically pleasing than Felis Catus individuals" – does not change the fact that this statement is not a hypothesis. This statement lacks physical properties (beauty is an opinion and not a physical property). Also, this statement lacks an equation linking the properties. In contrast, the statement, "dogs weigh on average ten pounds heavier than cats," is a genuine hypothesis. This hypothesis would be represented in mathematical form as wdog,ave = wcat,ave + 10. (This hypothesis is not a very good one, because it is way too general to mean much, but it is a genuine hypothesis nonetheless.) Ideas don't have to be complex to be valid hypotheses. The statement, "the Higgs boson has a mass of 30 kilograms," is a valid hypothesis because it can be written by the simple equation mHiggs = 30 kg. To test such a hypothesis, you just need to find the mass of the Higgs boson. This is what the team at CERN did (the hard part for them was finding the Higgs boson in the first place). They found that mHiggs =2.210-25 kg.

Unless the documentary you watched lead you to write down an equation linking physically observable properties, you don't even have a hypothesis. What you likely have is a string of science-sounding words without much actual scientific meaning. Statements such as "the flux capaciton fluctuates mnemonically" or "graviton beams stimulate Heisenberg compensation" may make for fun science fiction shows and novels, but they are nonsense in the real world. Even if they did make some sense, they would not have much scientific meaning until converted into concrete mathematical form.

The problem is that scientists in a documentary have to take the complicated and precise equations that constitute the theory and reduce them to a string of inexact non-science words for the non-scientist viewer to understand. The viewer then thinks those inexact words are the theory, when in reality they are just vague, superficial hints of what the actual theory looks like.

For instance, Einstein's theory of gravity (General Relativity) states:

equation of general relativity

But to the average documentary viewer this equation is incomprehensible. So instead, a scientist on a documentary may say that Einstein's theory of gravity, "tells us that mass warps space like a bowling ball warps a rubber sheet." The statement "mass warps space" by itself is not a theory. It's not even a hypothesis, because it can't be put into equation form by itself. It's nothing but a string of inexact words intended to give a non-scientist a superficial hint of the overall flavor of Einstein's theory of gravity. The actual theory is the equation above. But the average viewer has no exposure to the real theory and may assume the statement "mass warps space" is the theory. The viewer then strings together a handful of science-sounding words in a similar manner (e.g. "black hole fluctuations twist mass") and he thinks he has a new theory, when in reality he has next to nothing.

earth warping spacetime
Public Domain Image, source: NASA.

Let us now address the issue of where to publish scientific theories and experiments. If you have to ask the question, "where can I publish?" in the first place, it is very unlikely that you have something worth publishing. Ideas in science are only worth publishing if they extend the current knowledge. To extend the knowledge in a given field (and thereby have something worth publishing) requires first understanding the current knowledge. You can't create a theory of gravity that will be better than Einstein's theory of gravity unless you first fully understand Einstein's theory of gravity. "Understanding" a theory means being able to solve and apply its equations, and not just reading a book about it. Furthermore, understanding the current level of knowledge requires reading the latest academic publications. So you see, by the time you have something worth publishing, you will be well aware of where you can publish.

This post is not meant to discourage anyone who encounters science in the popular media and is inspired to think deeply. On the contrary, this post is meant to guide you into a more productive path. If you think your idea has merit, go for it! The first step would be to formulate your idea (if possible) into an authentic hypothesis. List all the physically observable properties involved in your idea (mass, speed, volume, etc.), and then write an equation linking these properties in such a way that it encapsulates your idea. Next, look through recent academic journals to see if anyone has already thought up or disproven your hypothesis. A good place to find academic journals is at your local university library. From there, read up in college-level textbooks to see if your idea is logically sound and does not violate well-established principles (such as the conservation of mass-energy). If you make it this far in your efforts, then contact authors who have published similar papers and ask them to give you some feedback on your hypothesis. For the rest of the process, such contacts will guide you towards experimentation and publication if your idea has merit. This is the quick and less-successful route towards publishing. The more successful, yet slow, route to publishing scientific papers is to go to graduate school and get a graduate degree in science. As part of graduate school, you will be paired with a research advisor who will teach you how to publish papers.

Topics: documentary, hypothesis, publishing, theory