A physical theory is a model of physical events. It is judged by the extent to which its predictions agree with empirical observations. The quality of a physical theory is also judged on its ability to make new predictions which can be verified by new observations. A physical theory differs from a mathematical theorem in that while both are based on some form of axioms, judgment of mathematical applicability is not based on agreement with any experimental results.A physical theory similarly differs from a mathematical theory, in the sense that the word "theory" has a different meaning in mathematical terms.[b]

A physical theory involves one or more relationships between various measurable quantities. Archimedes realized that a ship floats by displacing its mass of water, Pythagoras understood the relation between the length of a vibrating string and the musical tone it produces.[4][5] Other examples include entropy as a measure of the uncertainty regarding the positions and motions of unseen particles and the quantum mechanical idea that (action and) energy are not continuously variable.Theoretical physics consists of several different approaches. In this regard, theoretical particle physics forms a good example. For instance: "phenomenologists" might employ (semi-) empirical formulas and heuristics to agree with experimental results, often without deep physical understanding.[c] "Modelers" (also called "model-builders") often appear much like phenomenologists, but try to model speculative theories that have certain desirable features (rather than on experimental data), or apply the techniques of mathematical modeling to physics problems.[d] Some attempt to create approximate theories, called effective theories, because fully developed theories may be regarded as unsolvable or too complicated. Other theorists may try to unify, formalise, reinterpret or generalise extant theories, or create completely new ones altogether.[e] Sometimes the vision provided by pure mathematical systems can provide clues to how a physical system might be modeled;[f] e.g., the notion, due to Riemann and others, that space itself might be curved. Theoretical problems that need computational investigation are often the concern of computational physics.Theoretical advances may consist in setting aside old, incorrect paradigms (e.g., aether theory of light propagation, caloric theory of heat, burning consisting of evolving phlogiston, or astronomical bodies revolving around the Earth) or may be an alternative model that provides answers that are more accurate or that can be more widely applied. In the latter case, a correspondence principle will be required to recover the previously known result.[6][7] Sometimes though, advances may proceed along different paths. For example, an essentially correct theory may need some conceptual or factual revisions; atomic theory, first postulated millennia ago (by several thinkers in Greece and India) and the two-fluid theory of electricity[8] are two cases in this point. However, an exception to all the above is the wave–particle duality, a theory combining aspects of different, opposing models via the Bohr complementarity principle.