Does the word science make you think of high-tech labs and researchers in white coats like the ones in this picture? This is often an accurate image of science but not always. If you look up science in a dictionary, you would find that it comes from a Latin word that means “having knowledge.” However, this isn’t an adequate definition either.
What Is Science?
Science is more about gaining knowledge than it is about simply having knowledge. Science is a way of learning about the natural world that is based on evidence and logic. In other words, science is a process, not just a body of facts. Through the process of science, our knowledge of the world advances.
The Goal of Science
Scientists may focus on very different aspects of the natural world. For example, some scientists focus on the world of tiny objects, such as atoms and molecules. Other scientists devote their attention to huge objects, such as the sun and other stars. But all scientists have at least one thing in common. They want to understand how and why things happen. Achieving this understanding is the goal of science.
Have you ever experienced the thrill of an exciting fireworks show like the one pictured in the Figure below? Fireworks show how the goal of science leads to discovery. Fireworks were invented at least 2000 years ago in China, but explaining how and why they work didn’t happen until much later. It wasn’t until scientists had learned about elements and chemical reactions that they could explain what caused fireworks to create brilliant bursts of light and deep rumbling booms.
Fireworks were invented long before scientists could actually explain how and why they explode.
How Science Advances
Sometimes learning about science is frustrating because scientific knowledge is always changing. But that’s also what makes science exciting. Occasionally, science moves forward in giant steps. More commonly, however, science advances in baby steps.
Giant steps in science may occur if a scientist introduces a major new idea. For example, in 1666, Isaac Newton introduced the idea that gravity is universal. People had long known that things fall to the ground because they are attracted by Earth. But Newton proposed that everything in the universe exerts a force of attraction on everything else. This idea is known as Newton’s law of universal gravitation.
Q: How do you think Newton’s law of universal gravitation might have influenced the advancement of science?
A: Newton’s law allowed scientists to understand many different phenomena. It explains not only why things always fall down toward the ground or roll downhill. It also explains the motion of many other objects. For example, it explains why planets orbit the sun. The idea of universal gravity even helped scientists discover the planets Neptune and Pluto. The caption and diagram in the Figure below explain how.
In the early 1800s, astronomers noticed a wobble in Uranus’ orbit around the sun. They predicted that the wobble was caused by the pull of gravity of another, not-yet-discovered planet. Scientists searched the skies for the “missing” planet. When they discovered Neptune in 1846, they thought they had found their missing planet. After the astronomers took into account the effects of Neptune’s gravity, they saw that Uranus still had an unexplained wobble. They predicted that there must be another planet beyond Neptune. That planet, now called Pluto, was finally discovered in 1930. Of special note, as of 2006, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) demoted Pluto from its planet status as it does not meet one of the criteria for planetary standards. For more information see: http://www.nature.com/news/2006/060821/full/news060821-11.html
Baby steps in science occur as small bits of evidence gradually accumulate. The accumulating evidence lets scientists refine and expand on earlier ideas. For example, the scientific idea of the atom was introduced in the early 1800s. But scientists came to understand the structure of the atom only as evidence accumulated over the next two centuries. Their understanding of atomic structure continues to expand today.
The advancement of science is sometimes a very bumpy road. New knowledge and ideas aren’t always accepted at first, and scientists may be mocked for their ideas. The idea that Earth’s continents drift on the planet’s surface is a good example. This idea was first proposed by a scientist named Alfred Wegener in the early 1900s. Wegener also proposed that all of the present continents had once formed one supercontinent, which he named Pangaea. You can see a sketch of Pangaea in Figure below. Other scientists not only rejected Wegener’s ideas, but ridiculed Wegener for even suggesting them. It wasn’t until the 1950s that enough evidence had accumulated for scientists to realize that Wegener had been right. Unfortunately, Wegener did not live long enough to see his ideas accepted.
This map shows the supercontinent Pangaea, which was first proposed by Alfred Wegener. Pangaea included all of the separate continents we know today. Scientists now know that the individual continents drifted apart to their present locations over millions of years.
Q: What types of evidence might support Wegener’s ideas?
A: Several types of evidence support Wegener’s ideas. For example, similar fossils and rock formations have been found on continents that are now separated by oceans. It is also now known that Earth’s crust consists of rigid plates that slide over molten rock below them. This explains how continents can drift. Even the shapes of today’s continents show how they once fit together, like pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle.
- Science is a way of learning about the natural world that is based on evidence and logic.
- The goal of science is to understand how and why things happen.
- Science advances as new evidence accumulates and allows scientists to replace, refine, or expand on accepted ideas about the natural world.
science: Way of learning about the natural world that is based on evidence and logic.
Try to answer the students’ questions about the nature of science in the animation below. Then click on the answers to see if you are correct.
- Define science.
- What is the goal of science?
- Use examples to show how science may advance.