What comes to mind when you hear the word science? Microscopes or telescopes? A shelf full of books? A figure in a white coat?

While the roots of the discipline run through all history, it might have been Francis Bacon who first coined the term science. The sixteenth-century philosopher developed a method to weigh truth in knowledge and popularised the scientific method, whereby the laws that govern our universe are discovered by gathering and analysing data from experiments and observations.

Today, science is so multi-faceted it can be challenging to describe. Any definition needs to cover the investigation of the social as well as natural world, the applied as well as formal areas of study.

Put simply; science is the pursuit of knowledge and the understanding of our environment following a systematic methodology based on evidence.[1] It can be defined as both a body of knowledge we already have and the pursuit of a deeper understanding of both ourselves and the world around us.

Modern science can be separated into three major branches:

  • Natural science, which covers biological science and includes the study of life and organisms; and physical science, the study of material systems including physics, chemistry and astronomy.
  • Social science, the study of society and the relationships between individuals within a society. Including sociology, psychology and anthropology.
  • Formal science, the study of logical systems. Including mathematics, artificial intelligence and theoretical computer science.

The practical application of existing scientific knowledge to develop new technology and methodology is known as applied science.

Natural, social and applied sciences are based on empirical evidence; meaning they convert observable phenomena into testable principles that are reproduced and reviewed by other scientists.

The scientific method is a process and based on empirical evidence, meaning that an observable phenomenon leads to a potential explanation – a hypothesis – that is tested, reproduced and repeatedly reviewed to determine if it is more accurate than other possible answers. No question is off-limits, but the sort of answers science can provide are qualified. Every discovery prompts a new set of questions, and theories are modified over time – science is never finished.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of science in society is how it transforms our culture as it transforms itself. Science requires boundless imagination, provides us with a new perspective on our place in the cosmos and improves our understanding of ourselves as people. In this aspect, science resembles other great creative activities like philosophy, art and music. The free inquiry and vision we find in science and art reflect what is best about human curiosity!

[1] Our definition of Science (2009) Science Council