What is science?
When you hear the word ‘science’ what do you think of? Lab coats and test tubes? Telescopes and stars? Einstein? Dog-eared text books? While these represent various aspects of science, none of these truly embodies ‘science’ as a whole, because as a field it is so multi-faceted.
Science can be thought of as both a body of knowledge (the things we have already discovered), and the process of acquiring new knowledge (through observation and experimentation—testing and hypothesising). Both knowledge and process are interdependent, since the knowledge acquired depends on the questions asked and the methods used to find the answers.
The field of ‘science’ is often grouped into:
- natural science—life or biological science (the study of living organisms) and physical science (the study of the material universe including physics, chemistry, space science etc).
- social science—the study of society and people (such as anthropology, psychology)
- formal science—the study of logic and mathematics
- applied science—disciplines that rely on science and use existing scientific knowledge to develop new applications, such as in engineering, robotics, agriculture and medicine.
Both natural science and social science are known as empirical sciences. This means that any theories must be based on observable phenomena, reproducibility of results and peer review.
The most interesting thing about science is that it’s never finished. Every discovery leads to more questions, new mysteries, to something else that needs explaining. It’s a case of ‘the more we know, the more we know we know nothing at all’. For example, the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA revolutionised our understanding of biology, bringing up whole new areas to be studied such as genetic modification and synthetic biology.
Even within the ‘body of knowledge’ that science has garnered, nothing is ever ‘proven’. While we may have a lot of data to support the theory that yes, gravity does exist or that humans evolved over millions of years, we are constantly refining and reassessing the data. Because of Einstein, gravity today is not what it was for Newton or Laplace. Any new evidence may support this theory but it doesn’t prove it. While we accept certain theories as ‘true’, we do this provisionally. ‘Truth’ today does not guarantee we will not tomorrow find evidence to the contrary. Science is constantly gathering additional evidence concerning known theories … just in case.
Science can help us to understand ourselves and our world, to recognise how it works and where we fit within it. There will always be questions to be answered. What happens after we die? What causes us to dream? What is consciousness? It is this search for answers, humanity’s innate curiosity and drive to know ‘why’, that pushes scientific discovery forward. It’s possible science may one day find the answers, but if not it won’t be for lack of trying.