Scientists Say: Hypothesis

This is an idea put forth to explain events in the natural world


In the process of making discoveries, scientists make hypotheses. These are ideas put forth to explain things in the natural world that scientists then investigate through experiments, observations and other methods.   

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Hypothesis (noun, “Hi-PAH-theh-sis”)

This is an idea that may explain phenomena in the natural world. Making a hypothesis is one part of the process scientists use to make new discoveries. Before making a hypothesis, scientists may read about a topic to understand it better. They may talk with other scientists about it. Then they ask questions about things they don’t yet understand. The answers they propose are their hypotheses (“Hi-PAH-theh-SEAS”). Until confirmed, or disproven, such answers may be described as hypothetical ones.

For example, a team of biologists was studying how whales communicate. They knew that mother and baby humpback whales call quietly to each other when they migrate. So they formed a hypothesis that other kinds of whales also communicate quietly. To test this idea, researchers listened in on another species. They placed audio, or sound, recorders on mama southern right whales. The sound data they recorded showed that right whales whisper, too.

Other researchers use computer models to investigate their hypotheses. Models are very helpful when studying faraway things, like stars and planets. Some astronomers, for example, wonder if other planets have liquid water. Scientists have recently learned that a faraway planet called K2 18b has water vapor, the stuff clouds are made of. Could it also rain on that planet? To find out, researchers developed a computer model that simulated conditions on that planet.

In a sentence

Seeing that some hummingbirds have sharp or hooked bills led scientists to form the hypothesis that some birds use their bills as weapons.

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Carolyn Wilke is a former staff writer at Science News Explores. She has a Ph.D. in environmental engineering. Carolyn enjoys writing about chemistry, microbes and the environment. She also loves playing with her cat.