What is science?

Posted By Pamela on Aug 20, 2007 | 7 comments

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.


  1. So… calculating the amount of gunpowder necessary to accelerate the fluffy cat from a cannon through humid sea-level air with sufficient velocity to de-fluffify the cat is science?

    ( Not that I would ever actually *do* such a thing. Really. Honest. )

  2. This is the kind of thought provoking and funfilled content that keeps me listening to you and Fraser.

  3. This would be a great link to dispute http://www.junkscience.com. I’m so sick of people saying that global warming isn’t science. Yes, it really is. Observe past and present trends, make theories on why the trends are what they are, and make predictions based on those theories. If your predictions come true, there you go! Science!

  4. Spacebull, yes, global warming is science, absolutely! Science – certainly the process – doesn’t have to be necessarily right. Careful observations – science – led to the Aristotle model of the solar system. That model was wrong, but its predictions where correct. Indeed, for some years, IIRC, the Aristotle model made better predictions than the Copernican model. And yet we all know that the Copernican model turned out to be correct.

    I am not a fan of Global Warming. Having said that, I’ll also say that I’ve not done a vast amount of study on it. I do know that the long term data says that we are still climbing out of the last ice age. It is SUPPOSED to be getting warmer! (Source: Paleontological Research Institution). The global warming debate during the 1970s revolved around how COLD the Earth would be getting in the future. In the late 1700s/early 1800s – when we really started to accurately gather weather data, in my opinion, we detected a cooling period known as the “Little Ice Age” for example.

    Climatology models are so complex and deal with so many variables that I simply don’t the ability to make the predictions that some of these models are making. I see error bars – BIG error bars. Is there an alarming trend upwards in temperatures? Yes, I see that the data says that. What I don’t see is our ability to judge the length of this trend. I see it so little that I’m willing to put my life where the error bars are and move to Boston next year. And I’m not going for beach front property.

    Pamela! THIS is why you moved to the midwest! It was global warming, wasn’t it?! 🙂

    Having said all that, I am willing to keep an open mind, and hope that, as time goes on, the models we have start to converge – and they will – and the error bars start to shorten. But I’m still moving to Boston.

  5. That kind of thniknig shows you’re on top of your game

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