The Nature of Science and Its Various Disciplines

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Joy of Science

By Robert Hazen, Ph.D., George Mason University

Science is a powerful tool to understand the natural world based on experiential evidence, verifiable observations, and mathematical reasoning. Disciplinary boundaries exist for academic convenience, but nature is oblivious to these boundaries. Let’s try to understand the nature of science—how it differs from other ways of knowing, and how the various disciplines are integrated into the natural world.

Vector drawing of a science-themed items, objects, and symbols.
Scientists use carefully controlled experiments to make exciting discoveries. (Image: balabolka/Shutterstock)

Non-traditional Definition of Science

The human mind over centuries had made astonishing discoveries and provided mind-bending insights into the way nature works. Science is an ongoing human endeavor to understand the natural world. It is a method of understanding the natural world through carefully controlled experiments and reproducible observations. It also depends on independently verifiable facts and theoretical reasoning about physical phenomena. It then strives for a consensus based on those facts.

Learn more about the scientific method.

The Unique Technique

It is important to understand that science is a technique that differs from other approaches to knowing, such as religion, arts, political science, astrology, and psychic phenomenon. The other approaches are based on different aspects of human behavior that may not necessarily rely on evidence-based observations.

Religious faith, for instance, supersedes any observations in the natural world and depends on revelation or visions, sacred texts, and other sources. As these conflicting pieces of evidence are not part of the physical world, they cannot be examined by science.

Similarly, the fundamental character of art and science differ. While art is subjective and not based on absolute truths, science is objective and based on empirical evidence.

No Room for Pseudosciences

Science does not encourage pseudo sciences such as UFOs and is different from astrology. Though scientists do not deny the existence of UFOs, the lack of verifiable evidence makes their existence questionable.

Political and social sciences are based on verifiable facts but science differs from these disciplines in an interesting way. The disciplines of social and political sciences are built around the rich and varied experiences of people.

Hence, there could be several reasonable interpretations of events. Science, on the other hand tries to build consensus based on empirical evidence and mathematical equations.

Learn more about celestial and terrestrial mechanics.

Hierarchical Division Within Scientific Disciplines

The formal academic divide into various disciplines is a convenient way of learning science. As a consequence of this division, there is a hierarchy of scientific disciplines.

Physics occupies the top slot in the hierarchical disposition of scientific disciplines. This is because the laws of physics apply to both living and non-living things.

Vector drawing of physical and chemical equipment in a science lab.
The disciplines of physics and chemistry are at the top of the hierarchy of scientific disciplines. (Image: zabavina/Shutterstock)

In fact, to comprehend other disciplines such as chemistry, geology, and biology, one has to understand the basic principles of physics. Physics is a very diverse discipline classified as classical physics and modern physics.

Next in line is chemistry, the scientific discipline involving the study of chemical structures and chemical reactions when mixed with each other. While modern chemistry is a very old field, chemists today use both experimental and practical science. As a result, chemical research and chemical engineering are closely related.

Earth science is the study of the geologic, hydrologic, and atmospheric features of the Earth. A relatively younger discipline that evolved from the practice of mining, Earth science today deals with the study and behavior of other planets as well. It has two main subdivisions: geology and geophysics. Geology is the study of rocks and the way they are formed, while geophysics is the study of the Earth’s dynamic physical processes such as earthquakes, climate, and tides.

The largest and most diverse amongst every discipline, biology is the study of all living organisms. The diversity of the subject stems from the fact that there are many different ways to study living organisms. Botany, zoology, microbiology, and genetics are just a few common subdivisions of biology. There are a number of specialized societies and hundreds of journals associated with this discipline.

This is a transcript from the video series The Joy of Science. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Importance of Integrated Science

Despite its traditional separation into numerous courses for academic purposes, the various disciplines of science are integrated into our everyday lives. 

The division of science into various disciplines started in the 19th century when science emerged as a profession in the European university system. Initially, each university department had a single professor supported by lecturers and assistants. However, as the number of distinguished professors and academicians increased, the number of departments also increased.

Learn more about atoms and why they bond to one another.

Divisions and Subdivisions of Science

As a consequence, there was a random fragmentation of science into various divisions and subdivisions. It would be interesting to note that in the 1970s, there were three different Earth science departments and seven chemistry departments at Cambridge University.

A diagram showing physics science theory, law, and mathematical formula equations.
All the disciplines of science are integrated in everyday life. (Image: 1000s_pixels/Shutterstock)

A newspaper story about the disposal of radioactive waste can be used to illustrate how various disciplines are integrated. At first glance, the problem seems to be an environmental issue. However, radioactive waste also needs to be buried safely for thousands of years under the rocks.

So, it becomes a geological problem too. Radioactivity cannot be understood without knowledge of physics, and nuclear waste constitutes chemicals that are part of chemistry. Last but not least, it is also a biological problem as it is the living organisms that will be adversely affected by such radioactive wastes.

Thus, it is clear that knowledge of just one discipline is not enough to understand or find a solution to the problem, and the traditional academic courses do not provide an insight into the integrated approach of solving problems.

Common Questions about the Nature of Science and Its Various Disciplines

Q: What does the nature of science mean?

The nature of science is an indispensable element of scientific literacy that helps in the understanding of scientific concepts through carefully controlled experiments and reproducible observations.

Q: Explain the idea of integrated science.

Integrated science can be defined as a collective approach to scientific study that integrates the basic disciplines of physics, biology, chemistry, and Earth science to find a holistic solution to a problem.

Q: How do physicists divide their field?

Physicists divide their field into classical physics and modern physics.

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