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Basic science: understanding numbers
Basic science: understanding numbers

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1.4 How do numbers help test scientific hypotheses?

This is an illustration of a the world and some flowers.
Figure 3

You probably think about numbers most often when you need to buy something, or estimate the time to get to a destination. Numbers are also very commonly used to engage our support for some cause or another, whether that’s to make a political point such as the money spent by a previous administration on the National Health Service in the UK; to describe a new product that is faster, shorter or longer than previous products; or describe how your favourite sports team just bought a new player for many, many times your ticket price.

One of the most important ways of testing what you are being told is to work through the numbers yourself. A basic understanding of numbers will improve your understanding and wonder at the natural world, but also will help you protect yourself from being deceived by believing everything you see on the internet or on television.

Activity 1.2 Numbers and scientific developments

Timing: Allow about 10 minutes

Numbers are key to science and scientific developments. For example, the development of techniques to determine the ages of rocks and minerals changed ideas about the age of the Earth. Try to think of other examples where science has advanced when new measurements have tested scientific hypotheses, and note down your answers.


This is what science is. It is a way of thinking about the world around us in a logical and rational manner, suggesting an idea (a hypothesis), and testing it rigorously – most commonly by measuring things or putting numbers on them, and discarding the hypotheses that don’t stand up to scrutiny. To paraphrase the physicist Richard Feynman, ‘it is a way of not fooling ourselves.’