We are familiar with the instances when experimental results disproved physics theories, such as the Michelson-Morley experiment.

What about computational physics results? To date, is there any computational physics simulation that cast a strong doubt or straightaway disprove a physics theory?


1 Answer 1


Perhaps one of the most famous computational model discoveries of the 20th century is Lorenz's observation in 1961 of chaotic behavior in a weather model. It overturned the existing consensus in meteorology, and led him to the discovery of a strange attractor in a simplified model of atmospheric convection. The implications are described in the now famous 1963 paper Deterministic Nonperiodic Flow, that started modern chaos theory, where he stated "In view of the inevitable inaccuracy and incompleteness of weather observations, precise very-long-range forecasting would seem to be nonexistent." In a 1966 paper Arnold gave a general theorem about a class of models that confirmed Lorenz's insight, in his words he "used it to show that weather prediction is impossible for periods longer than two weeks."

Wikipedia describes the circumstances of Lorenz's discovery:

Lorenz was using a simple digital computer, a Royal McBee LGP-30, to run his weather simulation... To his surprise the weather that the machine began to predict was completely different from the weather calculated before. Lorenz tracked this down to the computer printout. The computer worked with 6-digit precision, but the printout rounded variables off to a 3-digit number, so a value like 0.506127 was printed as 0.506. This difference is tiny and the consensus at the time would have been that it should have had practically no effect. However, Lorenz had discovered that small changes in initial conditions produced large changes in the long-term outcome.

But I have to quibble a little with the idea that an experiment can "disprove" a theory. Modern theories are too sophisticated to be disproved by a single experiment, or even by a group of them. Experimental data is based not only on a theory but also on a number of extra assumptions (coming from multiple other theories and "common sense") that can be changed or discarded leaving the theory intact. The Michelson-Morley experiment for example was quickly reconciled with the ether theory by Lorentz, who proposed that (contrary to "common sense") rulers contract and clocks slow down when moving through ether. In fact, Michelson himself still believed in 1902 that the ether theory was triumphing, which was the consensus at the time. Developing a scientific theory is a complicated process, that involves experiments, theoretical analysis, numerical simulations (or just computations and estimates by hand), etc., and any of these stages can provide what is later seen as "the critical step" in disproving a theory.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ In theory, all it takes is one single scientific experiment to falsify a scientific theory (and sometimes this truly does happen). In practice, scientists want to see confirming evidence of that falsifying experiment, and they also want to see if the theory can be modified to accommodate the (confirmed) falsifying evidence. $\endgroup$ Apr 19, 2015 at 22:08
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ A couple of examples on top of the already-cited Michelson-Morley experiment: The observations during the late 20th century of far fewer solar neutrinos than theory suggested, and the 2011 observation of faster than light neutrinos by the OPERA experiment. The former was replicated many times, and eventually resulted in modifications to the standard model. The latter was eventually chased down to faulty wiring. Scientists are skeptics, even of skeptical scientists, and that's a good thing. $\endgroup$ Apr 19, 2015 at 22:09
  • $\begingroup$ I'd probably put it the other way, in practice one experiment is sometimes enough to take down a theory, but in theory one can prop it up indefinitely by making changes elsewhere. "Come what may", as Quine puts it :) Arguably, it was Einstein's theoretical realization that the ether has become a pointless decoration in electrodynamics that did away with it, rather than the Michelson-Morley experiment. $\endgroup$
    – Conifold
    Apr 20, 2015 at 23:44

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.