The terms model, theory, and law have exact meanings in relation to their usage in the study of physics.
Definition of Terms: Model, Theory, Law
In colloquial usage, the terms model, theory, and law are often used interchangeably or have different interpretations than they do in the sciences. In relation to the study of physics, however, each term has its own specific meaning.
The laws of nature are concise descriptions of the universe around us. They are not explanations, but human statements of the underlying rules that all natural processes follow. They are intrinsic to the universe; humans did not create them and we cannot change them. We can only discover and understand them. The cornerstone of discovering natural laws is observation; science must describe the universe as it is, not as we may imagine it to be. Laws can never be known with absolute certainty, because it is impossible to perform experiments to establish and confirm a law in every possible scenario without exception. Physicists operate under the assumption that all scientific laws and theories are valid until a counterexample is observed. If a good-quality, verifiable experiment contradicts a well-established law, then the law must be modified or overthrown completely.
A model is a representation of something that is often too difficult (or impossible) to display directly. While a model’s design is justified using experimental information, it is only accurate under limited situations. An example is the commonly used “planetary model” of the atom, in which electrons are pictured as orbiting the nucleus, analogous to the way planets orbit the Sun. We cannot observe electron orbits directly, but the mental image helps explain the observations we can make, such as the emission of light from hot gases. Physicists use models for a variety of purposes. For example, models can help physicists analyze a scenario and perform a calculation, or they can be used to represent a situation in the form of a computer simulation.
Planetary Model of an Atom: The planetary model of the atom in which electrons are pictured as orbiting the nucleus, analogous to the way planets orbit the Sun
A theory is an explanation for patterns in nature that is supported by scientific evidence and verified multiple times by various groups of researchers. Some theories include models to help visualize phenomena, whereas others do not. Newton’s theory of gravity, for example, does not require a model or mental image, because we can observe the objects directly with our own senses. The kinetic theory of gases, on the other hand, makes use of a model in which a gas is viewed as being composed of atoms and molecules. Atoms and molecules are too small to be observed directly with our senses—thus, we picture them mentally to understand what our instruments tell us about the behavior of gases.
A law uses concise language to describe a generalized pattern in nature that is supported by scientific evidence and repeated experiments. Often, a law can be expressed in the form of a single mathematical equation. Laws and theories are similar in that they are both scientific statements that result from a tested hypothesis and are supported by scientific evidence. However, the designation law is reserved for a concise and very general statement that describes phenomena in nature, such as the law that energy is conserved during any process, or Newton’s second law of motion, which relates force, mass, and acceleration by the simple equation F=ma. A theory, in contrast, is a less concise statement of observed phenomena. For example, the Theory of Evolution and the Theory of Relativity cannot be expressed concisely enough to be considered a law. The biggest difference between a law and a theory is that a law is much more complex and dynamic, and a theory is more explanatory. A law describes a single observable point of fact, whereas a theory explains an entire group of related phenomena. And, whereas a law is a postulate that forms the foundation of the scientific method, a theory is the end result of that process.