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It's said by Cave Johnson -- an character in Portal2. Full voice line is:

"Just a heads up: We're gonna have a superconductor turned up full blast and pointed at you for the duration of this next test. I'll be honest, we're throwing science at the wall here to see what sticks. No idea what it'll do. Probably nothing. Best-case scenario, you might get some superpowers. Worst case, some tumors, which we'll cut out."

I don't understand throwing science at the wall. In my opinion, what we throw should be a real thing (a ball, a stone), but science is an abstract concept, how could we throw it at the wall? And how could science (or something) stick to the wall?

Please give me some hints to understand that.

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youtu.be/QLmiknX8bFI?t=1m42s is the link to the spoken dialogue. – Steve V. Jan 8 at 20:35
Also note that Cave Johnson has a somewhat unconventional approach to many things. – Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen Jan 9 at 2:37
up vote 44 down vote accepted

This figure of speech comes from a test to see if spaghetti is cooked. You take some spaghetti out of the pan and throw it at the wall. If it sticks to the wall then it's cooked.

(Do not actually use this test. It doesn't work well and it makes a mess.)

So when you throw something at a wall to see what sticks, you are testing something to find out if it has the quality you're looking for.

'Science' is being used to collectively describe all the inventions and ideas they have at Aperture Science. They are testing them (throwing at the wall) to see which ones work (stick).

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I wonder if there's been some conflation over time with Throw enough mud... – AakashM Jan 8 at 13:52
@Sayakiss - Here's one page about the spaghetti/wall test: culinarylore.com/… – stangdon Jan 8 at 14:02
@Sayakiss Regarding the use of the phrase "what sticks" in the quote, it could be replaced with "which parts of the science we are throwing at the wall stick to that wall". A similar phrase is, "we will see what happens". – Todd Wilcox Jan 8 at 16:23
I don't know, the spaghetti-wall test always worked well enough for me. Though I only threw a single strand at a time. – Wayne Werner Jan 8 at 17:13
Yeah, definitely note that Clive Johnson, the guy making the statement in Portal 2, is comedic relief. He's layering multiple idioms in a way which can be very hard to follow for someone who didn't grow up with the language. A native English speaker, when facing the quote you provided, would get the meaning of the sentence by looking at the context around it, rather than trying to puzzle through his idiomatic speech. – Cort Ammon Jan 9 at 0:58

This alludes to a phrase from the glory days of the Madison Avenue ad agencies (think Mad Men). To "throw it at the wall and see if it sticks" (or "throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks") means to submit one idea (or several ideas) for an ad campaign to a client and see if the client likes it (or which idea the client likes).

Another phrase with the same meaning was "run it up a flagpole and see who salutes".

The character is saying "We're trying this science-based approach to see if it works".

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+1 for adding the "to see what sticks" part. It helps to understand the idiom. – J.R. Jan 8 at 16:18
I think your answer here: ell.stackexchange.com/a/7447/9161 was more comprehensive, but I think the newer question is better than the old one. Which should we close as a duplicate? – ColleenV Jan 8 at 22:54
And the phrase you allude to, in turn, alludes to the concept of throwing spaghetti to see if it stick to see if it's ready (a dubious test, but the phrase comes from it regardless). – Jimbo Jonny Jan 10 at 2:42
@JimboJonny You may be right. The phrase appears to have first appeared in print in about 1958. The first mention of the test I have found dates from 1961, in an industrial context. Then there's a rash of them in the mid-70s; but a couple of those from the 70s allude to it as "my mother's" practise. – StoneyB Jan 10 at 10:22
@StoneyB See my above reference to Sayakiss – Gandalf Feb 20 at 1:43

This is what is known as a figure of speech. It does not mean that you are literally throwing science. In the context it means that they are doing a scientific experiment and they don't really know what is going to happen.

Another example is its raining cats and dogs. This means its raining a lot.

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In the context it means that they are doing a scientific experiment and they don't really know what is going to happen -- How did you get that from the context? – Sayakiss Jan 8 at 12:43
"duration of this next test" sounds like some sort of experiment. "No idea what it'll do" implies that they don't know what is going to happen. – Max Goodridge Jan 8 at 12:47
Ok, I played Portal2, it's a scientific experiment, exactly. But I don't understand the relation between throwing science at the wall here to see what sticks and they don't really know what is going to happen... – Sayakiss Jan 8 at 12:52
I inferred that they don't really know what is going to happen from the next part No idea what it'll do. – Max Goodridge Jan 8 at 12:56
Yes. You cannot take a figure of speech literally. If you do, it won't make any sense. – Max Goodridge Jan 8 at 13:04

There are a variety of similar catchphrases to "throw it against the wall and see if it sticks". One is "run it up the flagpole and see who salutes". There is even (according to this Wikipedia article, which appears to be similar to this article in The Independent) "Let's put it on the five-fifteen and see if it gets off at Westport".

They all imply some kind of an empirical test, usually of an idea. Nobody is physically running a storyboard up a flagpole or placing a script on an MTA commuter train from Manhattan to Connecticut.

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During a scientific experiment you carefully test only one thing and see if it produces the results you expected from the theory. The sentence here basically means "we'll test every possible idea we've had and see if any of them works", implying they didn't do much theoretical work.

You can imagine it like having a lots of darts (ideas or science) on a table and throwing all of them on a target (wall) while blinded by a fold. You then take off the fold and see if any dart reached (sticked) the target.

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this answer doesn't really explain 1) that there is an idiom in play, 2) the idiom itself, or 3) how the idiom is used here. -1. – sgroves Jan 8 at 23:01

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