As a science prof, I hear lots of people in lots of different scenarios trying to define what is the act of doing science. I’ve heard people define science as the act of doing experiments that involve carefully controlling one variable while varying only one other thing. (Um, we can’t do that in astronomy). I’ve heard science is the act of doing experiments that build on past knowledge to improve our understanding in systematic ways. (Um, in astronomy we regularly discover things we weren’t expecting that we don’t have theories to explain – this is rather non-systematic discovery). I’ve heard science is not playing (Why?). I’ve heard science isn’t randomly trying things to see what happens (Why?) I’ve heard a lot of things that just seemed so narrow minded that if they were true we wouldn’t know all that much about our universe.
So this raises the question, what exactly is science? At it’s most basic level, science is 1) the act of observing our natural world (in controlled and uncontrolled environments) and making quantified measurements of what we observe, and 2) building testable theories based on those observations that make testable predictions.
This two step process means that it is alright for me to randomly mix chemicals as long as I carefully note what I am mixing (and it doesn’t matter how I note them – it can be in a lab notebook or in lipstick on my kitchen window if I so please). If I mix enough stuff in enough different ways, I’ll explore parameter space enough to be able to draw scientific conclusions as to what is happening. This isn’t the most effective way to do science. It’s certainly not straight forward science. But I would be doing science.
And just as random testing can lead to scientific results, so too can play. There are people who have studied how cream dissolves in coffee, how cats twist their bodies to (mostly) always land on their feet, and why if I show you a card with the word brown written in red you’ll really struggle to say brown while reading the card. This is play and this is science. I once even figured out with a high school friendwhat would be necessary to calculate how high you should drop a super frozen noddle from such that it melted just as it hit someone at sufficient velocity to knock them out (thus knocking someone out with a wet noodle). That was science and that was play.
In science the only right answer is what you see happening – what you observe.
The only wrong answers come from not noting what is actually happening. If you measure the acceleration of gravity to be 7m/s/s instead of 9.8 m/s/s and don’t note that it is for a fluffy cat that has a large drag and is flowing through sea level air pressure on a humid day – well, then you’ve made a good measurement and communicated it in a way that is wrong.
Science is the art of learning about the world around us. It is observation, thinking, predicting and learning. It can be fun. It can be serendipitously, and it can lead to unexpected discoveries that weren’t be carefully tested with proper control samples (the universe doesn’t have a control sample).
Watch, record and learn. That is science.