What is Science?

One of the reasons that I loved Dante, once I figured out how to read him, was that his attitude towards the world was one of careful observation. He knew, for example, where the stars were in the heavens at different times of the year, and different times of night, and different parts of the world. We can look it up on the internet. He KNEW it.

He knew about ripples in a bowl of water. He knew about reflections and that light moved really fast. He knew about flowers and their reaction to frost (some anyway). There’s quite a bit about weather and springs and rivers in the Divine Comedy.

Science, to me, is essentially observation. That isn’t a currently accepted definition but hear me out. I see Science being carried out in six ways. They are 1) observation, 2) classification, 3) demonstration, 4) prediction, 5) invention, and 6) experimentation. Everything that comes after observation is a way to carry out more and more specialized observations. Experimentation, of course, is the queen of this. But prediction is extremely important in areas such as astronomy and geology where experiments can’t always exactly be carried out.

Classification helps science to advance because it shows how things are connected after they have been carefully observed. Lots of classification was redone after people learned how to sequence DNA. It was very specialized observation and it showed connections that the physical expression of the DNA hadn’t shown.

Invention advances scientific observation because it allows us to observe in new ways. Galileo’s telescope is a great example of this. And Foucault’s pendulum is a demonstration of the turning of the earth, after a bit of explanation.

When people say “Science” is about questions that is true, but it is important not to get carried away. If you walk off the roof of a tall building gravity will have no interest in your questions about it.

The book about medieval machines and about the modern chip, had this in common, that they were about engineering. Reid, the author of The Chip, quotes Jack Kilby on the difference between a scientist and an engineer. Kilby said that the engineer wants to solve a problem. He is not looking for knowledge in the abstract, he wants to use it. But Kilby also said that the way to be a good engineer was to learn a lot about all sorts of things before you narrowed your focus to your specific problem. He had a lovely description of how reading a dental magazine helped him to solve a chip problem. He did a lot of science but then he used it.

Something to think about…

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