Sciency Words: Heuristic

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Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words. Every Friday, we take a look at a new and interesting scientific term to help us all expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s word is:

HEURISTIC

Heuristic: adjective. A fancy way of saying your scientific equation, theory, or idea is “close enough.” You’ve provided an easy way to think about a difficult problem, at least under certain specific circumstances. A heuristic theory can only give you a limited degree of precision, and if you stray too far beyond the specific circumstances that heuristic theory applies to, you might get answers that are way, way off the mark.

A good example is the equation E = mc2. We’ve all heard of this equation, but it is only a simplified version of Einstein’s actual mass/energy conversion equation. So long as your velocity equals zero or a value close to zero, E = mc2 is close enough. Otherwise, you’ll have to use the full equation: E2 = (mc2)2 + (pc)2.

We might also consider Newton’s laws to be heuristic. They approximate the behavior of objects in motion under circumstances we humans are likely to experience. But Newton’s laws are ever so slightly off, and on extremely large scales (think super high gravity or velocities approaching the speed of light), these minor discrepancies become significant.

To some extent, we might be able to label almost all scientific theories heuristic. Each new generation of scientists takes our body of scientific knowledge, corrects the errors of the past, and adds a bit more precision to our accepted theories. But I think the word heuristic should be reserved for those theories that only work under certain conditions and are blatantly incorrect under others.

P.S.: The word heuristic has other meanings in fields like psychology and computer science, but I believe the definition I’ve provided here is close enough under most circumstances.

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