Background knowledge

While there aren’t any requirements for this course, it will help if you know some stuff about science in general and a little chemistry as well. If enough of you need a refresher in this area, we’ll put it together for you.

Right now, though, it would help you a lot to know what you DO know and more to the point, what you DON’T know. You probably don’t much like taking quizzes, but hey, they’re actually fun! And they really help you understand where you are in the learning process. So let’s take a quiz or two, ok?

First quiz is about science in general. Most people don’t really understand what science is all about or how it actually works. This quiz will help you see where you stand on this: click first evaluation quiz.

Ok, let’s talk more about what science is in general. First of all, it’s a body of knowledge. That “body” includes everything we know and have learned over the lifetime of humans on this planet. Second, of course, is the “doing” of science: the process by which we add to that body of knowledge we need for good science. To emphasize the point: science is BOTH knowledge and a means to acquire new knowledge.

An excellent discussion and resource materials (such as the image above and the other one below) can be found at If you decide to go there now, though, you might find yourself spending the next few days exploring this wonderful site. Just to be legal, the citation for this site is:
“Understanding Science. 2017. University of California Museum of Paleontology. 14 May 2017 <>”

“But wait,” you say, “knowledge by itself isn’t all that useful, is it?” Absolutely true! Along with knowledge we have to have understanding, which is a different form of knowledge. Understanding what something means and how it works is crucial to effective use of that “something,” whatever it is. So tied to the knowledge itself (the facts and laws of science) is the understanding of how those facts and laws apply to the real world.

To oversimplify (which I love to do, actually), a pencil is just an object, a fact of a specific organization of several types of matter. But a pencil isn’t useful unless we know how to use it. That is to say, unless you draw something with that pencil, or write something meaningful with it, it’s not very useful at all just laying there. Understanding how it works and what to do with it are needed for the pencil to have real-world utility.

“But wait again,” you butt in (good for you!), “do you mean that just any old drawing or combination of letters make the pencil useful?” Nope, so let’s go one step further and talk about “wisdom.” Wisdom encompasses the fact of the pencil and how it works, but also includes the idea of writing or drawing something useful or beautiful.

Sure, any human, young or old, can make squiggles on a piece of paper, but it takes experience coupled with judgement and skill to know how to write a poem or a scientific paper. It takes judgement and a lot of creativity to use the pencil wisely to draw a picture of an invention you just thought up or to make a depiction of another human that conveys both beauty and inner emotion. Get it? I know it’s getting complicated so let’s summarize again: science is knowledge plus understanding plus experience-based wisdom.

The “Doing” Part of Science

Now on to the “doing” of science that gives us these three things- knowledge, understanding and wisdom. Here’s where the human aspect comes in. First, let’s get one thing straight: scientists are NOT emotionless robots with no feelings or desires. Hey, if they didn’t find excitement and joy in doing science, why would they even try?

No, scientists are, in fact, human, which means they are subject to all the foibles and mistakes that other humans have. Here’s the key, though: we scientists deliberately try to take into account our own emotions so they don’t effect the objective reality of what we’re looking at or looking for. Yes, emotion motivates us, but we try to not let it cloud our judgement.

Second thing about “doing science” is that it isn’t just a formalized process following a tightly written script. Lot’s of people think there’s a specific method or formal set of steps involved. In a way, I guess there is, but it’s more like a guideline than a formal requirement. If Einstein had tried to follow the imaginary “scientific method,” I don’t think he would have made the world-shaking discoveries he did.

In short, science is much, much more than just a formula for looking at the world around us. It also involves- no make that requires- creativity. There has to be a spark of new thinking, some new idea that lights up like a light bulb over (or in) your head to lead to new discoveries and new knowledge. So let’s talk about that aspect a little.

The image above (taken from “Understanding Science. 2017. University of California Museum of Paleontology. 14 May 2017 <>)

Where does that creative spark come from? How do ideas pop into our heads? Here’s my personal opinion on this: we don’t have a clue. Many of us think that creative thoughts are the result of our conscious awareness. Somehow, dwelling on a problem or an area of study stimulates the creativity. Begs the question, in my mind. I believe that we don’t really know where our ideas come from because it’s actually our subconscious that gives them to us. And that, my friends, makes it even more mysterious.

We don’t know how the subconscious works, although we know it exists and has a huge impact on our mental, physical and emotional activities. So if (as I believe) our creative ideas come from the subconscious, how do we know for sure? In science, we do experiments to support a theory. Problem here is that science only works well on the physical world, and the subconscious doesn’t seem to be part of that.

Oh, well, let’s move on with discussion of what science is and isn’t, or you can take a quiz. Might be jumping the gun a little because you need some of what’s in the next lesson to answer all the questions correctly, but hey, there’s no penalty so go for it, make lots of mistakes and then take it again after the next lesson.