What is science anyway?

YOU may have noticed this blog has been about sciencey subjects (so far at least – who knows what will happen in the coming months? I may decide to start talking about fudge, or flowers, or… well, maybe not, though all suggestions are welcome).

Anyway, I thought it was time we got to grips with what ‘science’ actually is.

To my generation, science is always split up into biology, chemistry and physics – the trio of subjects we studied at school. It brings memories of messy experiments, a bit of excitement when something blew up bigger than it should have done, iron filings, Bunsen burners and sniggers at the back when the teacher talked about reproduction.If you look in a dictionary, the word science is defined as: The intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment. That’s a bit of a mouthful, but it basically means the study of our world and all that’s in it. A pretty wide-ranging subject, then.

The word itself comes from the Latin words scientia, meaning knowledge, and scire, meaning to know. It became commonly used in the way we think of it only pretty recently – probably in the 18th century – although of course the desire to understand the world around us has been around for thousands and thousands of years.

We cannot know if Mr and Mrs Caveman sat around their fire discussing how plants grew or arguing about the origin of the moon – it seems unlikely, when most of their energy would have been taken up with surviving until tomorrow – but we do know that by the time the Ancient Egyptians were constructing pyramids and crafting gold statues, man had discovered a whole lot of useful facts about the world that helped him build, create and survive. Some of this knowledge had come about through scientific discoveries, although they would not have called them that.

Science became much more defined in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, when a new type of natural science developed, based on experiments and aimed at discovering the rules of the natural world and discovering new technologies. Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Galileo, Benjamin Franklin, Michael Faraday, Marie Curie – most of the great scientists you will have heard of date from this productive few hundred years.

Today we see science not as a whole but divided into a number of branches – usually split into three groups: physical sciences (physics, chemistry, mechanics, etc), life sciences (biology, zoology, botany) and earth sciences (geology, astronomy and meteorology). Some of them can overlap (such as when astronomy and physics becomes astrophysics).

Science can be trying to find a cure for cancer, discovering new materials we can build with or even exploring why people seem to like Justin Bieber so much – it’s many things, and helps us in many ways.

If you want to be a scientist when you’re older, you’ve got plenty of areas to choose from.

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