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"OH WATERS, TEEM WITH MEDICINE TO KEEP MY BODY SAFE FROM HARM, SO THAT I MAY LONG SEE THE SUN." - Rig Veda
The researchers have taught a computer to find regularities in the natural world that represent natural laws -- without any prior scientific knowledge on the part of the computer. They have tested their method, or algorithm, on simple mechanical systems and believe it could be applied to more complex systems ranging from biology to cosmology and be useful in analyzing the mountains of data generated by modern experiments that use electronic data collection.
Their process begins by taking the derivatives of every variable observed with respect to every other -- a mathematical way of measuring how one quantity changes as another changes. Then the computer creates equations at random using various constants and variables from the data. It tests these against the known derivatives, keeps the equations that come closest to predicting correctly, modifies them at random and tests again, repeating until it literally evolves a set of equations that accurately describe the behavior of the real system.