Thursday, April 3, 2008

What is science?

The month of April will be science month for me. At least until the Pennsylvania primary, I will blog mostly about science and technology issues in this space. So to get started today, I want to define science. I promise more interesting posts to come.

Science is a surprisingly imprecise term. Everybody wants to be a science, so just being based on the scientific method is not even a necessary criterion for a discipline to be classified as a science ("food science", "political science", even "rocket science" -- none of them based on the scientific method.).

The wikipedia link divides the sciences into formal, natural and social sciences, based on their object of study. For this article I will instead emphasize the differences between basic science, applied science and technology.

Basic science is a search for fundamental roots and causes, usually of natural objects and phenomena. Curiosity about the world around us is its primary motivation. An easy rule of thumb is, if you can make money from it, it's not basic science. That means that my triage of the sciences is an economic one. Applied science is using knowledge to create new products or processes, and technology is the result, gadgets we can use in every day life.

Mostly when politicians talk about Science and Technology or Research and Development, they mean the latter two, as basic science is such a tiny part of the our overall expenditures (and nobody understands it anyway). But basic science is the one that's most important to society for reasons I'll describe in my next post.

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