The Strong and Weak Senses of Theory-Ladenness of Experimentation: Theory-Driven versus Exploratory Experiments in the History of High-Energy Particle Physics

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Abstract






In the theory-dominated view of scientific experimentation, all relations of theory and experiment are taken on a par; namely, that experiments are performed solely to ascertain the conclusions of scientific theories. As a result, different aspects of experimentation and of the relations of theory to experiment remain undifferentiated. This in turn fosters a notion of theory-ladenness of experimentation (TLE) that is too coarse-grained to accurately describe the relations of theory and experiment in scientific practice. By contrast, in this article, I suggest that TLE should be understood as an umbrella concept that has different senses. To this end, I introduce a three-fold distinction among the theories of high-energy particle physics (HEP) as background theories, model theories, and phenomenological models. Drawing on this categorization, I contrast two types of experimentation, namely, “theory-driven” and “exploratory” experiments, and I distinguish between the “weak” and “strong” senses of TLE in the context of scattering experiments from the history of HEP. This distinction enables identifying the exploratory character of the deep-inelastic electron-proton scattering experiments – performed at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) between the years 1967 and 1973 – thereby shedding light on a crucial phase of the history of HEP, namely, the discovery of “scaling,” which was the decisive step towards the construction of quantum chromo-dynamics as a gauge theory of strong interactions.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)93–136
JournalScience in context
Volume26
Issue number1
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2013
Externally publishedYes

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