What is Science?
The human species possesses an insatiable appetite to explore, experiment, create and examine. The Encyclopædia Britannica defines science as any system of knowledge that is concerned with the physical world and its phenomena and that entails unbiased observations and systematic experimentation. In general, science involves a pursuit of knowledge covering general truths or the operations of fundamental laws. The three broad divisions of science are classified as physical sciences, biological or life sciences, and social sciences.
Scientific belief can be generalized in terms of cause-and-effect relationships. Scientists feel there is a perfectly natural explanation for most things, even though the depths of description of those explanations are often beyond the scope of comprehension of the average person. For example, there is a logical reason why some leaves turn red in the fall while others turn yellow or brown, or why objects of differing weights fall at the same speed or why they fall at all. Observations such as these are known as phenomena, and while some phenomena can be accounted for others cannot be explained at all at this time. Science attempts to seek explanation for the unknown, and the belief that effects have causes plays a significant role in scientific discovery.
Science demands tedious amounts of time making observations and gathering data and/or information, and from that employing a philosophical process known as the scientific method. This method involves the formulation of an educated guess, or hypothesis, based on the data and information collected. The scientist then designs experiments to test the hypothesis, which ultimately leads to acceptance, alteration or rejection of that hypothesis. An acceptable hypothesis is one that can stand the scrutiny and criticism of other scientists, and can provide the same results in repeated tests by self and others. An idea, model, or explanation that accounts for results obtained through observation and experimentation, and by inference can predict further effects verifiable through empirical evidence obtained from other experiments, is called a theory or Law. Theories and Laws continue to be accepted until such time that new information is uncovered that the scientific community agrees disproves them. This type of scrutiny helps scientists avoid errors, and leads to progression and further discovery and advancement in that field.
The history of science spans the scope of human existence on our planet. Beginning perhaps as a combination of rudimentary religion, mathematics and astronomy, evidence of earliest science can be found in the ruins and drawings of the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, Central America and India. But it is in 6th century BC Greece where philosophy and its oldest offspring, science, were truly born. And out of this arose also the first stages of medicine. The next surge in scientific thought and discovery in physics, mathematics and astronomy came about beginning in the 15th century AD, and involved the likes of Copernicus, Galileo and then Newton. While Boyle laid the groundwork for chemical discovery with his Gas Laws, it wasn’t until the 18th century with Lavoisier, and his concept of chemical reactions, that this field of science took hold. The founding of modern biology lagged mathematics, physics and chemistry because organisms were regarded as much more complex than inanimate bodies or forces. It wasn’t until Linnaeus introduced a rational, if somewhat artificial, basis of binomial nomenclature, which embraced the highly controversial notion that species were linked in some form of genetic relationship (a concept captured and pioneered by Charles Darwin), that the study of biology exploded.
The advancement of scientific discovery has mushroomed exponentially since then, providing both benefits and risks to humankind beyond the scope of imagination of the previous generation, and now reaching even into the present generation’s capacities of creative thought. While conventional observation may suggest that things are bad and getting worse, scientists and the science-minded among us see good news in the coming years. The scientific method figures out how things work and makes them work better. Much of the news is therefore either good news or news that can be made good, and this is thanks to ever advancing knowledge and ever increasingly efficient and powerful technology. As a whole, science poses more and ever enhanced questions, increasingly better asked.
Our exploding population, and its growing impact on our vulnerable planet and its limited resources, has placed greater strain to further advance science for our and our planet’s wellbeing. But it has also triggered growing public awareness and concern to urgently address the negative and destructive risks and aspects that have emerged out of scientific discovery and implementation. Scientists, through stepwise, piece-by-piece, discovery aimed at some leading-edge, long-range, achievement, almost exclusively seek advancement for the betterment of life and enlightenment. But the application and use of this discovery and newly found knowledge may not always be for the good. The past use and present status of nuclear warheads, the known potential of biological species as weapons, past realities of disasters from pesticides and chemicals, advancements in cloning, genetic modification and stem cell research and the ethical issues they are raising, the growing evidence and dangers of global warming, combined with terrorist attack as the new means of warfare, has us fenced in opposing camps of support and opposition not previously seen. Humankind opportunistically has the capacity to continue building for betterment and explore in areas previously out of reach, or regretfully destroy at will – choose your side – in manners completely unimaginable less than a century ago.The Edge World Question Centre is a public forum that raises questions of important relevance in science and asks highly noted and influential scientists, futurists and other interesting minds for their thoughts on that question. It is well worth the read in setting your own views. The Year 2010 question is How is the Internet Changing the Way You Think? The 2009 question was What Will Change Everything? What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see? Previous years can be found at www.edge.org/q2008/q08_print.html (for 2008), or altering the site’s numbers for the year of choice, or by ordering the selected book available at a reasonable price.