What is the difference between a theory and a hypothesis?

The fossil record is highly consistent with Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.

A hypothesis attempts to answer questions by presenting a plausible explanation that has not yet been rigorously tested. A theory, on the other hand, has already undergone extensive testing by various scientists and is generally accepted as an accurate explanation of an observation. This does not mean that the theory is correct; only that current tests have not yet been able to disprove it, and the evidence, as it is understood, seems to support it.

Outside of systems that are very small, Einstein’s theory of relativity has withstood over a hundred years of testing.

A theory usually starts out as a hypothesis – an educated guess to explain the observable phenomenon. The scientist will try to poke holes in your hypothesis. If it survives the applied methodologies of science, it begins to take on the meaning of a theory for the scientist. The next step is to present the findings to the scientific community for further independent testing. The more a hypothesis is tested and supported, the more accepted it becomes as a theory.

Scientists working in a laboratory can do research to test a hypothesis they have.

The theory of evolution, for example, is supported by a plethora of scientific evidence in the form of data from cosmological, geophysical and archaeological research, to name just a few relevant fields. Scientists have not only tracked the evolution of species through skeletal records, but the Earth itself, our solar system, stars and galaxies can be “dated” through various scientific methods. This evidence appears to trace the universe back from about 13.7 billion years to a “Big Bang” event.

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While there seems to be no end to the evidence supporting the theory of evolution, it is still just a theory. Theories, no matter how well accepted, are always subject to change as new knowledge comes to light. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, for example, explained the world on a large scale, but it broke when it came to the world of the infinitely small. This famous theory has been augmented more recently by the M-theory of superstrings, which neatly unites the four known forces in the universe into an elegant mathematical equation. M Theory exotically predicts that we live in a world of ten dimensions, plus one for time, for a total of 11 dimensions. Although many aspects of M-theory make testing difficult, the mathematical perfection of this theory has given it traction in scientific circles.

A current hypothesis of great importance is that of dark energy. Scientists can calculate how much mass is present in the universe, but physical matter – matter made up of atoms – makes up only 4% of the total. Dark matter is believed to make up another twenty percent, leaving about seventy-six percent unexplained. Enter the hypothetically summoned dark energy to fill the gap. There are a few competing candidates for dark energy with ongoing research. However, one of the problems is the difficulty in detecting it. So even while its interaction with gravity on a massive scale is enough to cause the universe to expand rapidly, in the lab detecting it is a bit like checking for a slight breeze using a weather vane filled with gigantic holes. However, as scientists unravel the mystery of the lost mass, the answer will one day shift from mere hypothesis to generally accepted theory.

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