What Is Science?

"Science is facts; just as houses are made of stones, so is science made of facts; but a pile of stones is not a house and a collection of facts is not necessarily science." -Henri Poincare (1854-1912)

To many, science is nothing more than the isolation of a body of truths about a given subject—facts systematically gained through observation and experimentation. Science makes the world more easily understood and, for the most part, predictable.

More than just facts, though, science is a way of looking at the world. The scientific method is a process of questioning, observing, and developing explanations. Picture the cook in the kitchen, adjusting the spices in a pot of stew. The last time, the stew was a bit bland, so perhaps a little more pepper and a pinch of sage will produce just the right flavor this time. Or consider the farmer, planting corn in a field, trying several varieties to determine which gives the best yield for this particular type of soil. And, for that matter, watch a toddler playing in the sand at the beach, designing a structure that doesn’t collapse. These are all examples of scientific research. They aren’t funded by large research grants, and they don’t result in a journal article, but each of these people is using the scientific method. Science is a systematic way of learning about the natural world.

Is science a natural human activity?

If trying to remember the difference between right-brain and left-brain activity leaves you yawning, just remember that some people are more interested in practicality and logic, while others are more given to creative and speculative activities. Good science requires a balance of the two. Science is a natural activity, because humans naturally attempt to discern how things work.


A scientist is by definition someone with an advanced knowledge of one or more sciences. It’s really that simple, but keep in mind that the only scientists anyone remembers today, and the only ones anyone hires, are those who can apply that advanced knowledge in the real world.

Newborns feel attachment to parents long before they are born, and have no problem discerning the difference in their parents. That makes them little scientists, wouldn’t you say? From learning words to taking her first steps, a baby learns by experimentation and mental notation of results.

People have been using science, often without realizing it, since the beginning of the human race. Early hunters learned how to make hunting tools by observation and experiment. If a particular type of stone was struck just so with the right tool, the resulting edge was sharp and lethal. Agriculture developed as gatherers noticed that specific seeds placed in the ground in the right way at the right season yielded more and better food than they found by chance.

Fast Facts

In a 2007 study detailed online in the journal PLoS Computational Biology, scientists stated that the brain can store more than 500 memories, but they could not be sure if memories were concentrated in one part of the brain, or spread across all the 100 billion brain cells making up the average adult brain. In the science of neuroscience, in which scientists using their brains try to understand our brains, they still aren’t sure how it all works.

There’s a Method in That Science

The modern scientific method was first laid out by Iraqi Arab Muslim scientist Ibn al-Haytham, also known as Alhacen, who chronicled his methods in his Book of Optics in 1021. (See Chapter 22 for more information on this scientist and his work.) This, combined with the syllogism (major premise, minor premise, and conclusion) developed by Greek philosopher Aristotle in his Prior Analytics, forms the basis of the current scientific method.

Alhacen’s work influenced English philosopher and theologian Robert Grosseteste, whose commentary on Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics included the idea that scientific reasoning should move from universal laws to particulars with predictable results. All these in turn influenced English Franciscan friar Roger Bacon, who was also known as Doctor Mirabilis ("wonderful teacher"). Bacon advised repeated observation of experimentation and a need for all results be independently verified. As such, all of his experiments were noted in such fine detail that anyone could independently reproduce and verify his results. Bacon was such a genius he was given a special compensation by Pope Clement IV allowing him to write on scientific matters.

Science did not become a formal discipline, however, until much later. During the Middle Ages, investigations that we would consider scientific today were described by the term "natural philosophy." Science, as a separate endeavor from philosophy, is a fairly recent idea. Science, as we know it today, means gaining knowledge through the scientific method.

The scientific method developed over the centuries, moving from philosophy and speculation to the necessity of verified repeatable results, and it is currently constituted of the following steps:

1. A question is presented.

2. The question is researched.

3. From the research a hypothesis is constructed.

4. The hypothesis is tested via experimentation.

5. Data is analyzed and conclusions are drawn.

6. Results are communicated to the larger community.

7. Results are verified (or refuted) by others.

A hypothesis, a word taken from the Greek hyposthenia, "to suppose," is a suggested explanation for any phenomenon, natural or otherwise. Hypotheses are different from theories in that they are, in the scientific method, either proven or disproven.

Whether determining the structure of DNA or discovering whether the planet Mars can sustain life, some form of the preceding steps is used by scientists of any discipline. Proving a hypothesis can take quite some time, however. In 1907, Albert Einstein in his theory of general relativity questioned Newtonian physics when he predicted that light would bend in a gravitational field. This was not proven until 1919, when astrophysicist Arthur Eddington made observations during a solar eclipse that verified Einstein’s hypothesis.

"He that gives good advice, builds with one hand; he that gives good counsel and example, builds with both; but he that gives good admonition and bad example, builds with one hand and pulls down with the other."

Who does Science?

Imagine a place where people do scientific research. If I were to bet on what you are thinking of, I would place my money on a laboratory full of benches with strange equipment being operated by scientists in white lab coats. It’s true that there are many laboratories like that in universities, hospitals, and manufacturing companies throughout the world. It is also true that a lot of scientific research occurs in these laboratories. Science, however, is not restricted to the stereotypical research facility.

In reality, everyone engages in science. You don’t have to be a scientist; when you learn of a new idea or product and try it out, you are performing the last step of the scientific method. While everyone can look at a problem scientifically, the information in this topic generally addresses science in its more common usage—the products of formal research by scientists. As stated in the title, science relates to  everything around you in one way or another. However, by understanding and practicing the basic steps of the scientific method presented previously, more analytical results can be obtained in just about any area of life.

It used to be that the label "Made in China" meant a product of I easer quality, but that has changed greatly in the twenty-first century, including in the field of science. According to the website www.sciencewatch.com, in March 2008 the People’s Republic of China ranked number eight in the world as determined by scientific papers published in Thomson Scientific-Indexed Journals of Physics over the period 1997 to 2007 The United States was again ranked number one, but China’s scientific prowess is now world-renowned.

Science as a Search for Knowledge

For the most part, all science comes about due to an effort to better the quality of life. From early tool making to the observations of heavenly events and their effects on crop production, the development of science has served to evolve humankind past mythology and superstition to predictability and improved conditions.

We still have a lot to learn. If we compared human civilization in recorded history to the normal education cycle in modern life, one could say that as a race we are barely out of high school. We have some idea how to deal with the weather, but rarely can we do anything about it. We have placed men on the moon, and had a robot take extensive pictures on Mars and transmit them back to Earth, but we are likely decades away from moving away from our home to other places where humans might live.

Fast Facts

Quantum entanglement is a scientific phenomenon in which two or more objects have a connection between each other that scientists do not fully understand. Also known as the "spooky effect," this interconnection is such that two photons could conceivably be separated across a galaxy, yet each "twin" would know what the other is doing. Experiments by French scientist Alain Aspect in the 1980s established this fairly conclusively, but there were loopholes that offered possible other explanations, so the jury is still out.

We’ve made a lot of progress in 10,000 years, though. Whereas science and philosophy or even religion were once inseparable in human thought, science can now be categorized in three areas: biological, physical, and social. Biological covers living things and their interaction, while the physical sciences deal with astronomy, chemistry, and all material things. The social sciences encompass everything related to behavior, including psychology and sociology.

Science and Technology

The wonderful thing about science is that its proven principles are demonstrable to anyone. When good science is developed, useful technology frequently results. One look at the consumer products resulting from the U.S. space program provides an excellent example. There’s a long list at http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/en/kids/spinoffs2.shtml that includes the satellite dish, the ear thermometer, smoke detectors, ski boots, and joystick controllers.

These days, science and technology are inextricably woven together. If you would like to keep track of major developments, a good place to start is the magazine Science & Technology Review, published six times a year by the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory.

Alchemists in the Middle Ages vigorously pursued ways to turn lead into gold, which seems foolish today. Nevertheless, it really can be done, although not with a "philosopher’s stone." The 1951 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, Glenn Seaborg, t ransmuted a small quantity of lead into gold via physics in 1980. Eight years earlier, Soviet physicists at an experimental nuclear facility accidentally turned lead reactor shielding into gold. It can be done today in a particle accelerator, but the cost of the process is far more than the gold produced.

Everyone an Understand Scientific Ideas

Given current challenges such as climate change and declining fishing yields, it is imperative that as many people as possible all over the world understand scientific ideas. That begins when people realize that science is not merely the province of "eggheads" but something learnable and applicable by anyone. If you understand the basic steps of the scientific method, you can "do science." If you understand basic scientific principles, you can invent items useful for everyone. Take the example of actress Hedy Lamarr, whose understanding of frequency hopping (rapid and random changing of the frequency of a radio signal) resulted in a patent intended to keep torpedoes from being thrown off course. Lamarr first learned of frequency hopping while sitting in on meetings with her Austrian munitions-dealer husband as arms designs were discussed. The ideas she patented are the basis for anti jamming radio technology today.

The key to understanding science begins with the basics, and underlying the principles are the terms. In this topic, you will find the terms defined wherever possible to their origins, so that the step-by-step developments of science are seen. By understanding the terms, you can understand the principles, and with the understanding of these basics you learn how to evaluate scientific evidence in general. Anyone can understand scientific ideas, but sometimes they first need to learn that such a thing is possible. Just as Hedy Lamarr gave rise to a major piece of technology by observation and experimentation, many great inventions have come about via the efforts of so-called average persons who were not afraid of delving into science.

What to Watch Out For

To make sure you are dealing with actual science, you need look no further than the Internet—not the use of the Internet, but the way it was initially put together. First developed in 1973 by Stanford graduate Vinton Cerf in conjunction with the United States Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), the initial network was known as ARPAnet, and Cerf published the results of his work. ARPAnet linked computer networks at a few U.S. universities and research laboratories.

It was a decade before the network resembled anything that we know today. In 1989, the work was expanded into the World Wide Web by English computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee for the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). By 1996, more than 25 million computers in over 180 countries were connected, and today it seems the entire world is accessible via the web. The lesson here is that scientific breakthroughs may arise from the single bright idea of one person or group of persons, but it often takes decades for the initial idea to be fully realized, and this is only after the initial results have been vetted and improved upon by other scientists.

Getting It Right and Getting It Wrong in the News

It may seem that the best source of information about science is the news media. In many ways this is true. Well-researched reports can convey information about science in a readable form. However, the media is not always completely reliable. One of the most famous incidents of misleading the public occurred on the radio when Orson Welles created a nationwide panic on October 30, 1938, with his presentation of H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds on the CBS Radio Network. Welles presented the first part of the program as a series of news bulletins, and people across the United States thought the country was actually being invaded by Martians.

While this is an extreme example of getting the information wrong, major news outlets can—by selective editing, subject selection, or even opinion masked as news—be less than accurate about important facts. It is important to read, listen, and view critically. Most news reports will identify the researcher or institution responsible for the research behind the story. When it does not, it may be a good idea to maintain some skepticism, and be aware that the article could be pushing a viewpoint rather than reporting science.

Remember the steps of the scientific method as you evaluate science news. If the hypothesis has been thoroughly tested, the data well analyzed, and the published results verified by others, who are the others? A good reporter will investigate. What journalists know that you might not, however, is the idea that "if it bleeds, it leads," particularly with television news. If there is the possibility for scientific news to have a deeply emotional element, chances are it will, to attract the media. To view it scientifically, you need to strip away the emotion and look at the facts. That’s what good scientists will do.

A great many products are advertised as "scientifically proven," but that can be a misnomer. Try finding a standard definition for that phrase; you probably can’t. If you see that advertised, it would be wise to ask, "Whose science?"

Though there is science news, there is no organized science of newsgathering. The closest thing to it is computer-assisted reporting, which began with the rise of personal computers. It involves database and statistical analysis and allows reporters to use proven scientific data to support their conclusions.

The Internet has opened a new route for science communication and is often your best source for up-to-date science news. The warnings to be skeptical about media reports based on questionable sources applies to the Internet as well, and possibly even more so. Before you assume that a scientific "fact" that you find on the Internet is true, be sure that you know the source of the information and the possible agenda or biases of the person posting it.

How Statistics come into Play

Englishman Leonard Courtney said in 1895 that there are three kinds of lies: "lies, damned lies, and statistics." While statistics might make the normal person’s eyes glaze over, and are perhaps at times misused, they are nevertheless a science, a mathematical one. Statistics are necessary in the collections and analysis of data, as well as in the presentation of findings. In fact, statistics as a subject is applicable across all sciences. Statistics can be used to "model" data so that random variations and uncertainties are taken into account, such as in the study of demographics derived from a census of an area. Mathematical statistics can be used, for example, to determine the likelihood of something like asteroid impact on a flight to Mars. So while statistics might have been unreliable to the point of ridicule in 1895, in the current age it is a valid science that is used continuously by scientists.

"Science is simply common sense at its best; that is, rigidly accurate in observation, and merciless to fallacy in logic."

Science Is Always hanging

The most in-the-news scientific subject of the twenty-first century has been the idea of global warming. Putting the debate center stage before the public won former U.S. Vice President Al Gore a Nobel Prize and an Academy Award.

While global warming has been hotly debated by many prominent scientists, including the founder of The Weather Channel, a study entitled "How Well Do Coupled Models Simulate Today’s Climate?" published in April 2008 in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society has provided an analysis that has convinced even some of the most prominent skeptics that global warming is real and can be attributed to human activity. Thomas Reichler and Junsu Kim from the Department of Meteorology at the University of Utah compared 50 different national and international models developed at major climate research centers around the world over 20 years, including the 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In summarizing their findings, Reichler stated: "We can now place a much higher level of confidence in model-based projections of climate change than in the past."

Meanwhile, in April 2008 the head of the World Meteorological Organization announced that the recurring Pacific Ocean-based La Nina weather phenomenon would cool ocean waters enough to trigger a small drop in global temperatures for the year.

Scientists must often balance apparently contradictory information to build theories that explain all the observations. Research in global warming is one example of our changing and evolving understanding of nature. In the course of a single generation, global warming due to the increase in greenhouse gases has changed from a possible explanation of an observed warming to a theory that is almost universally accepted among climate scientists. Because it is an extremely complex problem, our knowledge will continue to grow and change as more data is collected.


La Nina ("the little girl") and El Nino ("the little boy") are ocean-atmosphere phenomena affecting sea surface temperature in the Pacific Ocean and causing fluctuating weather conditions around the world. La Nina results in colder temperatures and drier conditions, while El Nino generates the opposite. La Nina is usually preceded by a strong El Nino.

Sorry, but That Is Not Science

"Pseudoscience" is a term used to describe knowledge that is claimed to be scientific or made to appear so, but was not developed in line with the scientific method. Pseudoscience is often used in claims by hucksters of products promising great medical benefits. If it sounds good enough, they reason, the public might believe it and buy. Television ads abound for products making fantastic claims for effortless weight loss, muscle-building without work, and "male enhancement," among others. These ads often allude to medical research, but a bit of investigation usually finds no supporting evidence for the claims.

Just because an idea is widely accepted, that doesn’t mean it is "scientifically proven." In April 2008, Dr. Dan Negoianu and Dr. Stanley Goldfarb from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia made headlines around the world when they revealed that they had reviewed every published clinical study about the body’s need for water. Looking for some scientific evidence of the "common knowledge" advice to drink eight glasses of water a day, they could find none whatsoever—it was a medical myth!

Other examples of pseudoscience include astrology, creation science, and claims of medical benefits of magnets or "structure-altered water." How do you know if something isn’t science? True scientific research follows the scientific method and results are reported in such a way that others can repeat the experiment. If this is not the case, the results are not science.

Next post:

Previous post: