This Common Knowledge guest column examines Richard Feynman’s tabletop experiment, performed during the inquiry into the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, as a means of demonstrating some of the fundamental qualities of a scientific experiment. Experiments have been interpreted in two different ways, which (adapting terminology from Euclid) are described here as theorematic and problematic. Some think that Feynman’s experiment was a theorematic demonstration, a demonstration of the truth of a hypothesis. In this analysis, however, the experiment and, indeed, most of the most productive experiments in science, are shown to be better seen as problematic—meaning that they pose new questions and problems for research.

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