How does physics scattering experiments relate to real life? And what does the scientist gain from such experiments? I am having a hard time figuring the answer out. Please help.

  • $\begingroup$ They make experiments to validate the theory, which contains quantities like scattering angles. If experiments and theory agree, then the theorists might be on the right track. In that case, they use the theories to predict novel behavior so they can test new things. At some point, someone gets an idea for an application and in the end you get a better iPod. Do you know how a touch pad works? It's pretty cool. $\endgroup$
    – Nikolaj-K
    Jan 27, 2012 at 17:38
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    $\begingroup$ They relate to real life in that it is an age-old technique of figuring out how stuff works: You poke it, throw stuff at it and smash it together. :D $\endgroup$
    – Lagerbaer
    Jan 27, 2012 at 21:35
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    $\begingroup$ @Lagerbaer You poke it with a stick. With a stick, man! Lest you discover that you're really doing biology when the subject tried to bite you arm off or chemistry when you discover that your finger has dissolved.Throwing stuff at it is, of course just fine. $\endgroup$ Jan 28, 2012 at 21:43

1 Answer 1


Depending on how you define scattering, its not only scientists who do these experiments, it is you, especially your eye.

Most likely you are referring to things like Rutherford backscattering or what is done at CERN, DESY, LHC & Co.?

In the end, the entire world can be seen as particles that are getting scattered by each other. E.g. electrons on atomic nuclei, cosmic radiation (i.e. "weird" particles) on atoms, and sunlight (i.e. photons) on you.

Physicists like those individual scattering experiments because they allow to isolate and study one of those myriads of possible scattering events that happen all the time. In such controlled environments, they can compare theory with reality/experiment. E.g. suppose you have a theory on what an electron and a proton are, and how they behave. Then you just shoot one on the other (under various angles, with various energies, etc.) and look whether the results are according to theory (which is good) or not (which is likewise good as this will lead to an improved theory or even overthrow fundamental concepts, both are seen as scientific progress).

Without the understanding from such experiments things like a transistor would not have been possible. Without a transistor, you would not have an iPod/Pad, no Mac/PC, no internet, ...

Actually, the physicist Werner Heisenberg, in his later years, even tried to model a theory of everything based on nothing else but scattering (S-Matrix, where "S" stands for ...).

  • $\begingroup$ It's not just Heisenberg--- S-matrix theory is nowadays called string theory. This is one of Heisenberg's great ideas, that the S-matrix is the only true observable in flat space, and all others are reconstructions. It's only a slight generalization to relativistic systems of Heisenberg's energy basis. $\endgroup$
    – Ron Maimon
    Jul 27, 2012 at 7:18

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