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Natural Science - Year I

Unit 1: What is Science?

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Science Web Assignment for Unit 1

This Unit's Homework Page History Lecture Science Lecture Lab Parents' Notes

Science Lecture for Unit 1: The Scope of Science

For Class

The Scope of Science

Besides considering the nature of scientific information, we also need to identify what kinds of objects and experience belong to science. We've already seen from the short discussion of objective and subjective experience that not all observations are scientific observations, and not everything is part of science. What is the subject matter of science? Has the subject of scientific study changed over time, and if so, why?

Classifying information

Looking at the Web provides us with a survey of the divisions and interest levels in different areas people today -- or more specifically, people who use the web -- consider science. For example, in 1995, the Yahoo Science Page listed about 50 divisions of scientific endeavors, from major areas or general methods like Physics and Research to more specific areas like Chaos or Nanotechnology. While some of these topics have changed over the last two decades (Chaos was listed a subtopic of Mathematics in 2010), most of the high-level topics remained constant while the number of subdivisions grew.

After 2010, Yahoo! changed its business model and it no longer lists topics the same way. The presentation of knowledge in an organized fashion has largely been taken over by Wikipedia, whose Science page functions much as the old outline of science in the Encylopaedia Britannica's Propaedia did in the 1970s. The Britannica Propaedia was a gallant attempt to organize all of knowledge on the basis of intrinsic relationships between subject matter; by following the topics in the outlined order, you can achieve good mastery of the fundamentals of most academic subjects.

Two other modern attempts to organize information for storage and retrieval are the Dewey Decimal and Library of Congress catalog systems, which libraries use to organize their collections. Knowing that books labeled with "534" in the Dewey Decimal system or "QC221" in the LCC system describe sound and vibration will help you quickly find a book explaining how sound waves travel in air.

Notice that we have two reasons to break science down into subareas. One is to manage storing and retrieving information. The other is to help us learn that information. These two goals are sometimes at odds with one another. We might be tempted to think that because the concepts of "matter" and "energy" are more basic and universal than the concepts of "cat", we should learn about matter and energy first. Our current education plan, however, usually has high school students tackle physics (with its study of matter and energy) after tackling biology, because most educators believe that the abstract nature of the concept of "matter" requires more training to understand and learn than the concept of "cat".

Topics in Science

For the purposes of this course, we will be learning "natural" science, which usually means the scientific investigation of the things which are not the result of human activity. We can try to organize these objects into a hierarchy of objects, just to keep track of our goals (and you can see that it is a large goal!)


Take a closer look at the Science Divisions "mind map". (Use the controls at the bottom of the screen to page through the slides).

Here we have broken "Nature" down into very basic components of energy, matter, and force, and then into combinations of those components to form systems, for example, entities that are alive. Our diagram may change and grow as we add systems of objects that interact in complex ways, such as atmospheres and weather, or planets in space.

Natural science includes the physical sciences (physics and chemistry), the life sciences (biology and its many divisions), and the earth sciences (geology, meteorology, and astronomy). These subject areas have many divisions, and it is sometimes tempting to think of each field as a separate set of knowledge in its own little box. It is easier, especially when we are first learning about them, to view biology as a field of knowledge which is completely separate from geology, or mathematics as a totally abstract exercise with no application to physics or astronomy. In fact, though, biology depends on geological studies for at least one aspect (current theories of macroevolution), and mathematics has become the "language" of physics, with which we express physical laws such as the definition of gravitational force, FG = GMm/r2.

The Division of Sciences

Here's a first cut at an outline of science for this course. Explore it a bit by clicking on the left-most triangles to expand the topics to review detailed subtopics.

If you are confused about what outline I mean, click on the brown print term "outline of science" in the paragraph above. Words in brown are links to other information.

You'll note that this outline covers much of the same material as our "mind map" of science above. Some people prefer outlines to mindmaps. Both are good ways of organizing data. Sometimes one is better or more appropriate to use than the other because the material involves graphics and interrelated ideas (mindmapping helps), or because there is a lot of hierarchically related data (outlining helps). Use the one that works for you for the material you are studying at the moment. We'll be expanding this outline throughout this course, trying to fit our new ideas into an existing framework that will help us keep track of what we know, and see how ideas relate to each other.

Many of the most important developments in science thought have come at the boundaries where two disciplines meet or overlap in their explanations of the same phenomenon. During the scientific revolution, Copernicus, Kepler, and Newton joined mathematics to physics and changed not only our view of the universe, but our idea of how to do scientific investigations. In the nineteenth century, Wallace and Darwin combined ideas from geology and biology to produce a theory of evolution. In our century, biochemistry research has produced practical technologies based on genetics, and astrophysics has given us a picture of a universe populated with exploding galaxies, dark matter, bright clouds of gas, and black holes—a very different vision from the Newtonian universe of two centuries ago.

These inter-relationships make organizing our materials a little difficult. As you work through course material, you will need to try to see how the culture and society of a given time produced a particular view of the universe, and how that view or its modern form fits into the overall topics of earth sciences, physical sciences, and life sciences.

Limitations to the scope of science

Even when we admit that one scientific discipline can contribute to another, we need to be careful about assuming limitations on the direction of the contributions. We are used to thinking that statistical mathematics can be useful in describing weather phenomena, but it is less obvious that the study of storm formations may contribute to an understanding of abstract mathematical functions. Nevertheless, it was the study of weather phenomena by William Lorenz in 1961 that started a whole new field of mathematics called chaos theory.

Normally, the study of science excludes human endeavors, such as art, architecture, literature, and the even the activity of scientists. Often, we consider the areas of psychology, anthropology, and archaeology as "soft" sciences, because they use scientific methods on people, and people have a way of determining their own agendas (what they will do), unlike atoms and rocks, which scientists assume have no agendas. We are not going to cover psychology or anthropology, but we are going to look at the content of science in the context of the human efforts which produced it.

Another excluding principle is whether or not a given topic can be investigated using scientific methods. While we often think that the scientific method depends on experimentation, controlled laboratory experiments are often not possible. Other methods of observation and data collecting are also used. But there are limits on when such methods are appropriate. Phenomena that is usually excluded from science include non-repeatable events (unless they are basic to other phenomena, such as the origin of life or the formation of the universe itself), events that can only be reported subjectively, such as as divine revelation, or matters of opinion, such as whether Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace is better than Star Wars IV: A New Hope. We'll investigate the methods appropriate to scientific investigation in more detail in our next unit.

Study/Discussion Questions

Further Study On your Own (Optional)

How does the list of topics for Wikipedia's page differ from that of the government's science topics? What do you think accounts for the differences?