What is Science and How it Works

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Science is the last step in man’s mental development and it may be regarded as the highest and most characteristic attainment of human culture.(Ernst Cassirer)

The belief that science developed solely out of a pursuit of knowledge for its own sake is at best only a half truth, and at worst, mere self-flattery or self-deception on the part
of the scientists. (Lewis Mumford).

Science distinguishes itself from all other branches of human pursuit by its power to probe and understand the behavior of nature on a level that allows us to predict with accuracy, if not control, the outcomes of events in the natural world. Science especially enhances our health, wealth and security, which is greater today for more people on Earth than at any other time in human history.

A simple, brief, and comprehensive way to define science is in fact not so easy to come up
with. A colleague of mine recently remarked that the defining characteristic of science is that statements in science must be tested against the behavior of the outside world. This statement is fine as far as it goes, but represents a rather impoverished picture of science.

Where are imagination, logic, creativity, judgment, metaphor, and instrumentation in this viewpoint?

All these things are a part of what science is. Science is sometimes taken to be the sum total of all the facts, definitions, theories, techniques, and relationships found in all of the individual scientific disciplines.

Many beginning science students have this idea. But an opposing opinion, which is becoming increasingly influential, has been expressed in academic circles. In this view, the heart of science is in its methods of investigation and ways of thinking, not in specific facts and results.


The science taught in textbooks is a lifeless husk, whereas real science is the activity going on in the laboratories and fieldwork Once again, both of these ideas have merit while neither can claim to be complete.

The results of science are inseparably intertwined with its thought processes; both together are needed to understand what science is all about

There are many other such debates and contrasting perspectives among scientists and philosophers concerning the true nature of science, and we’ll consider a number of them as we go along. For now, though, let’s take a rest from these abstractions and look at a small example of science in action. Our example concerns something of interest to almost everyone: food.

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Example: Why should you whip a meringue in a copper bowl?
As anyone who has made a lemon meringue pie knows, whipping egg whites results in a somewhat stiff foam (the meringue). A tradition in cooking, which can be traced at least back to the eighteenth century, is that egg whites are best whipped in a copper bowl when making meringues.
The meringue turns out creamier and less prone to overbeating if the bowl is made of copper (the creamy meringue also has a somewhat yellowish color).

If we assume that a small but significant number of copper atoms are scraped from the sides of the bowl into the egg white, then we have a good possible explanation of why copper bowls help to prevent overbeating.

We can test our explanation. These conalbumen/copper complexes absorb
light of certain specific colors. Looking at the light absorbed by meringues, we can find out if they really do have such conalbumen/copper complexes. This test has actually been performed, and light absorption experiments using meringues beaten in a copper bowl do indeed reveal the presence of stable conalbumen/copper molecules. Incidentally, the light
absorption properties of the complex give it a characteristic yellow color,
and so we also have an explanation for the yellowish color of the meringue.

This modest example is far removed from the grand philosophical debates about science, but it nicely illustrates a number of important themes: science is about real things that happen in the world; science tries to provide a coherent understanding of these things; our specific observations must be placed in a more general framework to be understood; interpretations are often based on pictorial models; we often use instruments
and measurements to augment our observations; a genuinely coherent picture often leads to predictions of new observations, which serve as tests of how correct our present interpretation is.

In spite of  the above, we can clearly say and understand that the significant and efficacy of science cant be negotiated.  Considering the broad concepts and ideas important in the sciences. Although each of the individual scientific disciplines has its own central principles (for example, natural selection in biology or plate tectonics in geology), the concepts
emphasized in this part of the book are transdisciplinary.

In other words, the subjects discussed here cut across disciplinary boundaries and are important in a variety of different sciences. In this way, I hope to show  some of the underlying unity of the sciences, which can become lost in the fragmentary treatment of particular results. A prime example of such broadly important concepts is symmetry.

Though symmetry is in many ways a mathematical concept, it is significant in art and aesthetics as well as in virtually every science. Another good example is the dependence of
volume and surface area on the characteristic size of an object; this too turns out to be important in many areas of science (as well as in practical affairs).

Very often in the sciences, a prominent consideration is how something changes. Two of the most common and useful kinds of change are discussed here: linear variation (one thing proportional to another) and exponential variation (growth rate proportional to amount).

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