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What is science?

What is science?

That’s a good question. The answer is very simple, but few people really understand.

Some people believe science is:

  • A lot of interesting facts about the natural world (like the fact that the longest animal known to science is a tapeworm that lives in the gut of a whale).
  • Lots of complicated formulas, like or “E=mc2” or

    What is science?
  • Information you learn about in school, like cell structure.

But science, at its core, isn't about trivia, math, or even the structure of the cell.

So you’ve told me what science isn’t. What is science!?!?

Science is a method of learning about nature. Scientists learn by simple observation, and more often, by experiment.

So, if you want to learn about the structure of a cell, you can look it up in a science text book, but you would not be doing science.... ...If you looked at some cells under a microscope, then you would be doing science.

What is the Scientific Method

Scientists have developed the scientific method to ask questions of nature. These questions are asked in the form of “experiments.”

To see how this works, lets use the famous example of Galileo.

For thousands of years, people accepted Aristotle's belief that heavy things fall faster than light things. But Galileo had his doubts.

Everyone agreed that two 5-pound bricks would fall at the speed. But Galileo thought, “What if I just tied the two bricks together. Together, they would weigh ten pounds, but if I dropped them, they would drop at the same speed as before.”

This was a brilliant insight, but Galileo was still not 100% positive. So he asked nature to answer his question.

An experiment is done to test a hypothesis. In this case the hypothesis was, “Heavy things fall faster than light things.”

Then, we are told, Galileo climbed to the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa and dropped two different masses at the same time.

Science Experiment

Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

They hit the Earth at the almost the exact same time.But he wasn’t done. Galileo spent years doing hundreds of experiments, all asking nature to tell him how gravity works.

Experiment after experiment after experiment proved that Aristotle’s theory of gravity was wrong.

What is Scientific proof.

Experiments can easily prove when you're wrong....

....Galileo proved that Aristotle’s theory of gravity was wrong....

....He didn’t prove that his theory of gravity was correct.

The scientific method is very good at proving when we're wrong. It’s not very good at proving when we are right.

Galileo's theory of gravity was replaced by Newton's theory. And (thanks to a brilliant experiment during an eclipse), we now know that Newton's theory was wrong. The best theory of gravity we have right now is Einstein's theory.

Einstein’s theory of gravity may be wrong, but it hasn’t been proven wrong yet.

What is Science good at?

Science is very good at proving that some ideas are wrong.

What is science bad at?

It is almost impossible to use science to prove that an idea is right.

For this reason, good scientists often do experiments that could prove that their best ideas are wrong. Good scientists spend their working lives trying to prove that their favorite, most passionately held beliefs, are wrong.

If you have an idea which can not be proven wrong by experiment, then it might be correct, but it is not science.

Sometimes the experiment is hard to do, and this is understood by all scientists.

For instance, a new theory is emerging that may one day replace Einstein’s theory, string theory.

Right now, there is no way to prove that string theory is wrong. For this reason, many people, including myself, do not think that string theory is science.

Some day, string theory may start to make predictions about real experiments that can actually be done. At that point, string theory will become a science. And, of course, at that point, string theory may be proven wrong.

Rigorous use of the scientific method has allowed almost all of the advances in human knowledge in the last 300 years. So it's reasonable to ask, "What is science?"

Science is not a bunch of facts and equations written in a book.

Science is a very simple method of learning about nature.

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