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Science: Understanding Our Physical Universe

Problems with understanding science

There are many problems today with our understanding and expectations of science and its important offspring, technology:

-Most non-science professionals and average citizens are not clear on the role of science in modern society.

-This is especially complicated because science is often confused with technology.

-The two are directly related but are very different in their goals and objectives, and in how they actually work.

Exactly what is science and what is it all about?

The goal of science is to expand knowledge while the goal of technology is to apply that knowledge:

Both rely on asking good questions; that is, questions that can give valid answers which will have real meaning about the problem under consideration.

The basic difference in the their goals is one of abstract versus concrete.

Science is more focused on abstract knowledge

Technology uses the abstract to develop concrete devices and processes.

The whole arena of science and technology deals with five fundamental components: knowledge, skills and techniques, discovery, understanding and application.

It is the interplay between science and technology that leads to advances in modern society. This interplay results in new products and new companies selling those products.

We will talk more about technology later, but let’s focus on science right now. Science focuses more on the first four of the five components listed above and technology on the last one, but both have aspects of and rely on all of them.

Science is a Process

People often think that science only uses the scientific method They are right in that science is a process of doing research, but wrong in focusing on a single method or thought process.

Discovery is Based on Exploration

How do you learn how to explore? As children, we did this “naturally:” we randomly examined everything in our immediate environment and did something with whatever we happened to pick up. Based on what happened, we did something else with it, often randomly, until we learned something about how that thing worked or whatit was used for in our world. Discovery in science is much more systematic than our childhood investigations:

The key thing about doing the experiment is that you are hoping to make a discovery. That is, come up with something that was new or different than what you expected. Of course, when you design the experiment, you are attempting to address and answer specific questions. This means that you have some idea about what the answer will be. But real discoveries in science almost always result from seeing something that was not expected, something different that changes our thinking and understanding.

The synergism between understanding and discovery works both ways:

These are the kinds of questions that must be answered before any discovery results in a true extension of our understanding.

Technology: Not Just a Step-child of Science

Technology results from application of knowledge

Both understanding and discovery are key components of any application, but to actually develop a commercial use, there are other considerations:

All of these are extensions of the basic scientific process but go way beyond the basics of “doing science” into the realm of “doing technology.” That’s another story that should be told at another time and place.

To recap, then, it is important to understand what science is all about: expanding knowledge through asking questions. That process encompasses discovery and understanding that can lead to technological applications. This is how changes in our technical aspects of our society happen: science is done by curious humans and technology happens:

Ok, folks, time to get serious about evaluating what you’ve learned (or haven’t). Take this quiz on this lesson plus the last one and see how you do. Don’t be afraid to guess- feedback will help you understand mistakes. If you do really poorly, re-read these two lessons and try again. Remember, the important thing is to know what you know. Second is to know what you don’t know, although this is actually a paradox. Once you master the quiz, move on to the next lesson, and keep learning!

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 www.understandingscience.org. 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 <http://www.understandingscience.org>”

“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.

  • Many people are fuzzy about what science is exactly although most people realize how important it is to their everyday lives.
    • Because the goal of science is to expand knowledge, the process of doing science is to ask and answer questions that lead to new knowledge.
    • There are two main aspects, then, of doing science: developing understanding on one hand and exploring or discovering on the other.
    • There is dynamic tension and synergism between these two that is exciting and productive. The relationship between them leads to eventual understanding that can lead to application (technology).
    • Based on our current knowledge, we creatively map out new areas for exploration, and then begin to systematically explore th0se areas.
    • This exploration involves developing hypotheses- asking the questions- and attempting to answer those questions.
    • The questions generate some kind of experiment, whether it is a Gedanken or thought experiment, a calculation on a computer or a chemical reaction that has not been carried out before.
    • Two key attitudes or activities are crucial for the experimentation stage.
      • The first is intelligent observation which requires that the observer actively interact with the experiment. This requires not just seeing, but asking questions about what is being seen, thinking about possible answers and attempting to understand the results during the process.
      • The second attitude ties in with the first and involves serendipity, the unexpected finding of something valuable or useful. This attitude is one of expectation of an accidental or unexpected discovery. As Louis Pasteur said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.”
      • What that means is that you do everything you can to ask the right questions, set up experiments to give valid results, and then keep your eyes and mind open to seeing the unexpected result.
    • The discovery process, if successful, leads to an unexpected finding. This finding must be understood before it can be used and brought into the general framework of existing knowledge.
    • To understand a new discovery, you must go through the scientific process but in a different way. That is, you must again ask questions about the discovery, develop a hypothesis (an experiment or way of answering the new question), and see if the hypothesis fits the facts and observations made during the initial discovery and follow-on experiments.
    • In fact, and this is a tough part of doing good science, you have to try to prove your theory wrong. Try to come up with an experiment that will show your initial finding is not valid. Only in doing everything you can to show you were wrong (and failing) can you have confidence that your results are correct.
    • A further mental component of translating discovery into understanding involves the development of relationships and concepts.
      • Once you confirm the discovery and map out its limitations and attributes, you must put it into a context of related behavior.
      • What are the relationships between your discovery and other aspects of the field?
      • What new concepts must be applied or developed to extend the discovery to more general areas?
      • What old concepts must be modified to accommodate this new discovery?
    • You have to be able to see some way of using your understanding of the discovery to develop some new product or way of doing something.
    • Whatever it is that you want to do must be both new and useful.
    • Plus, You need a combination of skills that go beyond basic science:
      • Device design or process development
      • Engineering and scale up to commercial levels
      • Interfacing your developments to existing technology
      • Marketing and “selling” your new product or process so that you actually “make money” at some point
    • Science is a process that is exciting because it involves all aspects of the human condition: body, mind and soul.
    • Science is a human process that requires emotional commitment, passion, energy, and discipline.
    • Most important is the often overlooked fact that science is extremely satisfying: there is nothing more rewarding that making a new discovery that can lead to technology for improving the way we live.
  • The image above (taken from “Understanding Science. 2017. University of California Museum of Paleontology. 14 May 2017 <http://www.understandingscience.org>)

    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.