Science is the observation, identification, description, experimental investigation, and theoretical explanation of observed phenomena that can be tested and challenged by others.
Scientists are a similar breed of specialists to mathematicians. They also deduce relationships, but their work typically starts from, and is grounded in, the concrete world (for example, in the field or in the laboratory), rather than the abstract world. Scientists aim to uncover the causal and connective relationships that exist between “real” events and “real” things. They strive to explain and understand reality.
We might say that science began when humans started to wonder about the nature of their surroundings in some kind of organized manner; when individuals first asked what might be causing the sun and stars to appear to move, or thunder to deafen, or animals to be so similar inside yet so outwardly different.
Middleton, in his 1963 discourse on the scientific revolution, realized that this occurred many centuries ago. He noted that Thales of Miletus (who lived from 640-546 BC) wanted to explain the universe. In other words, Thales understood that there is a causal reason for each tiny piece of the universe to be the way it is. This, stated Middleton, marked the birth of science.
Slowly, by careful observation, control of variables, measurement, accurate records, repetition and a great deal of thought, scientists began to understand why nature behaves as it does. Understanding grew in leaps and bounds once scientists learned to extend their senses’ abilities by building instruments: first measuring sticks, balances and graduated containers, then micrometers, microscopes and telescopes.
People eventually discovered (only about two centuries ago) that precision and knowledge go hand-in-hand with the ability to challenge accepted wisdom. Accurate measurements allowed Copernicus and Galileo to place the sun, rather than the Earth, at the centre of our collection of planets. Newton carefully observed moving objects (some say a falling apple), then wrote the gravitational formula that explains how the universe is held together. Wallace and Darwin recorded fine details of life’s species, then deduced the mechanism of evolution. Einstein employed acutely crafted thought-experiments about relativity, then extended the significance and value of Newton’s work.
Scientists and mathematicians follow similar methodologies; they seek and uncover facts, then try to discover any relationships that may exist between these facts, or between these and other known facts or theories. Both professions are delving deeper and deeper into the nature of the universe, and the two, seemingly distinct, knowledge domains are converging. Scientists routinely use mathematics to obtain precision and to extend their discipline’s utility. Mathematicians use their skills to describe what is happening in the centre of stars, and to reconstruct what must have happened moments after the universe began. The abstract explains the concrete; the concrete adds flesh to the abstract.
- There are many important branches of theoretical science, where specialists work with pen and paper (or, more often these days, with computers) and do not work in laboratories or the field, but their work will always have its links to the real world. If it didn’t, colleagues would probably start calling them mathematicians.
- W. E. K. Middleton, The Scientific Revolution (Toronto: C.B.C. Publications, 1963), 12.
- This is because the universe’s various substructures (e.g., quarks, electrons, atoms, etc.) are very small.
- They both probably knew that Aristarchus of Samos had discussed the idea of a sun-centred solar system in the third century BCE. (And was promptly accused of impiety for doing so.)