28 April 2012


The word "science" comes from the Latin word scientia, meaning knowledge.  Broadly, it is "a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe."  In classical usage, science referred to the body of reliable knowledge itself.  In modern use, science more often refers to a way of pursuing knowledge, not the knowledge itself.

Why should this be?  After all, isn't knowledge immutable and certain?  As it turns out, often not.  Knowledge evolves over time, as we learn more about the universe, our world, and ourselves.  For instance, we once thought that the Earth was flat, and that it was at the center of the universe, with the other planets, the Sun, and all the stars revolving around it.  We no longer believe those things.  Our knowledge grows with questioning, study, experimentation, drawing conclusions, and further questioning.  The manner in which we pursue and refine knowledge, the scientific method, provides the framework within which we reliably (subject to further testing) trust in our familiarity with facts, information, descriptions, or skills.  Thus the modern emphasis on science as a way of pursuing knowledge.

And yet, being a voyage of discovery involving intuition and curiosity, science is not limited to cold calculations or mathematical precision.  Science and art overlap (see illustration above, click to enlarge) precisely in the realm of wonder.  And it is in this realm where scientists themselves offer the most fulsome descriptions of their life's work.  Here are a few examples ~
  • "The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious ~ the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science." ~ Albert Einstein
  • "Science teaches the value of rational thought as well as the importance of freedom of thought, the positive results that come from doubting that the lessons are all true." ~ Richard Feynman
  • "Real science is a revision in progress, always.  It proceeds in fits and starts of ignorance." ~ Stuart Firestein
  • "The scientist is not the person who gives the right answers, he's the one who asks the right questions."  ~ Claude Levi-Strausse
  • "Science is an inherent contradiction - systematic wonder - applied to the natural world."  ~ Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon
  • "Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge." ~ Carl Sagan
  • "All of science is uncertain and subject to revision.  The glory of science is to imagine more than we can prove." ~ Freeman Dyson
  • "One thing I have learned in a long life ~ that all of our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike ~ and yet it is the most precious thing we have." ~ Albert Einstein
  • "Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood.  Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less." ~ Marie Curie
  • "Being a scientist requires having faith in uncertainty, finding pleasure in mystery, and learning to cultivate doubt.  There is no surer way to screw up an experiment than to be certain of its outcome." ~ Stuart Firestein
  • "The heart of the scientific method is the reduction of perceived phenomena to fundamental, testable principles.  The elegance, we may fairly say the beauty, of any particular scientific generalization is measured by its simplicity relative to the number of phenomena it can explain." ~ E.O. Wilson
  • "Science alone of all the subjects contains within itself the lesson of the danger of belief in the infallibility of the greatest teachers of the preceding generation." ~ Richard Feynman
The above observations come from Maria Popova's What is Science?  An Omnibus of Definitions.  My thanks to her for publishing the collection.  You can find more by clicking on the link.

So science combines the best of discipline and wonder, rigor and joy, precision and uncertainty.  A core tent in science is that any hypothesis, theory, or law must be falsifiable.  That is, if evidence is discovered which disproves an explanation for an observed phenomenon, then the explanation can no longer be regarded as universally true.  In science, we can disprove statements, but we cannot prove them, because we are operating limited by our best understanding at the present moment.  And as we've established, understanding evolves.  Paradoxically, this is what differentiates science from myths, superstitions, religions, and folk traditions, which rely on a leap of faith unsupported by evidence.  Repeated examination, questioning, testing, and confirmation allow us to believe with confidence that gravity, evolution, and microbes exist.  Until someone disproves their existence.

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