What is science?
-A middle school student from California
January 7, 2010
That's a toughie! Science is such a big topic that it includes lots of different stuff.
If you're in school, then science is mostly memorizing things scientists have already learned. You learn that earthquakes happen when tectonic plates move. Or about how genes were discovered by Mendel using peas. And so on.
Actually doing science is way more fun than that. Here science is all about trying to come up with ways to figure out how the world works. You are exploring uncharted waters, going where no one has gone before.
You can think about science as a puzzle. In school you mostly look at already done puzzles. The picture has to be pretty amazing to make that both fun and memorable.
But when you are doing science, you are putting the puzzle together. Each experiment is like trying to put a piece into the puzzle. Sometimes it fits and sometimes it doesn't. As you build up more and more of the puzzle, you get a better and better picture of how the world works.
What you may have noticed in all of this is that science has little or nothing to do with technology. All of those fancy machines and clever techniques help scientists answer questions but they aren't really science per se. They are just an important way of getting the right puzzle pieces to the right place.
This is actually a mistake that a lot of first time science fair participants make. They get DNA out of a carrot and think that is the experiment. To be a science fair project, you have to then analyze the DNA in some way. How many chromosomes in a carrot? What parts are similar to people DNA? And so on.
So doing science is actually way more fun than learning about science. For now anyway. Hopefully schools will change how they teach science so everyone can see how fun it can actually be.
What I'll do for the rest of the answer is go over a bit how science works. As you'll see, it really is like putting a puzzle together. Or building a skyscraper.
Beware Falling Apples
As I said before, science is basically trying to understand how the world works. Let's look at the question, "Why does an apple fall down from a tree?"
This is a pretty big question, sort of one giant puzzle all at once. So the next step is to break this big question into littler ones. These smaller questions are more like individual puzzle pieces.
Maybe you want to fist get some information on how fast an apple falls. How fast does it fall from a tree? From a rooftop? From the top of the Empire State Building?
Next you come up with experiments that can answer these questions. In this case, you'd time how long it takes for the apple to fall from each height.
You'd then try to get something general from the information you've gathered. Maybe putting all those pieces together has shown you some part of the puzzle.
Does the apple fall at some constant rate? Does it go faster and faster the farther it has to go? In fact, the apple goes faster and faster as it falls until it reaches a certain speed.
You can figure out an equation from these results that can then make a prediction about a fall from an unknown height. You then make a prediction.
Based on my equation, the apple will take 5 seconds to hit the ground. You then test to see how long it takes.
If the equation didn't get it quite right, you then try to come up with ways to tweak it so it works every time for an apple. Maybe temperature affects how fast it falls. Or maybe the wind affects it. It is like you have one corner of the puzzle done but you've put it at the top when it should be at the bottom.
It may also be that you need to scrap your original formula and come up with something else based on the new results. It is like you've forced a couple of the puzzle pieces together so you need to take them apart and start over.
Once you've got the equation figured out, you might then try to figure out if it works for other objects. In other words, did what you learned from the apple apply to a feather too?
Of course a feather falls slower than an apple so the next set of experiments might be to figure out why that is. Eventually you do the right experiment that shows that air resistance slows an object down. When you drop an apple and a feather from the same height in the absence of air, they now fall at the same rate.
Figuring out how fast an apple
falls helps us understand why
the moon orbits the Earth.
Now you have a great equation that will tell you how long it will take something to fall. You can even tweak the formula to include air resistance so that it can predict how fast the feather and the apple will fall in air. This formula can now also explain why the Earth orbits the Sun, how fast an apple will fall on the Moon, etc. You've solved a big part of this particular puzzle.
The final step is to figure out how gravity actually works. This sort of bigger question requires lots of experiments done with big, fancy machines. Scientists are still trying to add the final pieces to this puzzle.
This "gravity" puzzle is just one of many being worked on. When it is combined with all of the others, we get a clearer picture of how the whole world works.
So that is all there is to science -- just figuring out how the world works. As you can see, at its primal level, science is simply solving a mystery. And solving mysteries is fun.
Why do so many people dislike science then? I think it is because of how it is taught.
Science is not Boring!
What I've described so far is the cutting edge of science. As I said at the beginning, what usually gets taught in class is the stuff we've already learned.
So we learn about how all the animals are organized into phyla, genera and species. And we memorize the equation for gravitational pull. And we learn about those round and wrinkled peas Mendel worked with. And so on.
Hardly a murder mystery in any of these! Especially when so many of them are in Latin"¦
Instead teachers should focus on the process of science. Have the students use DNA to solve a murder mystery. Or let them investigate the world for themselves to see if they come up with the same formulas the scientists did. Have them time how long it takes to drop an apple and see what they come up with. Can they explain why a feather falls at a different rate?
Have them do an experiment to figure out why there are seasons. This is actually something that lots of people get wrong. In school they are taught that the seasons come from the tilt of the Earth but in the end they tend to believe that in summer, the Earth is closer to the sun.
The BBC has a great set of experiments to do with an apple that shows why a tilted Earth leads to the seasons. Perhaps by doing these experiments, the idea of a tilted Earth will stick in people's heads better.
Science then is really about solving mysteries. How can a bumblebee fly with such little wings? What color was a Neanderthal's hair? Why do I have blue eyes? Science can help you find the answers.
Fun video singing science's praises