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Science, Maths & Technology

Being a scientist

Updated Thursday, 27th September 2007

An introduction to what scientists do and what science means - but answering those questions just creates more questions...

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Ronnie Barker lampoons logician Mr Spock Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: BBC

Science is not, as Star Trek's Spock would say, 'logical, Captain'. If it were, scientists would be out of a job because everything would follow from a few basic ideas, and there would be no need for experimentation and hypothesis. Science would also be very boring.

The excitement of much of science arises from the unexpected nature of the things it throws up. After all, if we could predict the outcome of each experiment it wouldn't be worth doing it! The really great scientists are the ones who can recognise the unexpected and realise its potential!

As many research students embarking on a three-year Ph.D. project are told by their supervisor, ‘This is what I want you to do for the next three years, but I can almost guarantee that we will end up doing something else. I know that during your endeavours we will discover some new quirk that will divert us from our original ideas.’

What scientists try to do is to observe and measure the world around them, and then try to make sense of it all. They do this by creating simple models that explain and predict the behaviour of small parts of the world, be it a chemical reaction, the working of the heart or the Earth’s weather systems. They use what’s called a reductionist approach. In other words, they break the problem down into its simplest components, and try to explain how and why each component behaves the way that it does.

However, this is sometimes problematic, because the world is not always simply the sum of its parts. We often need to take a more holistic approach. It’s rather like treating a person for a particular illness. Often it is possible to identify an individual process that is not working properly, but to make the person feel better, we need to consider the patient as a whole person.

The Open University Course S104 Exploring Science provides an introduction to many aspects of science, including biology, Earth sciences, chemistry and physics. The course is aimed at people with absolutely no experience of scientific study whatsoever.

Here are two extracts on the topic of the meaning of science and the responsibilities of scientists, taken from S103 Discovering Science, the course for which Exploring Science is a replacement.

What scientists do

If you look up the word ‘science’ in the dictionary, it generally gives the most common meaning: the organised body of information about the material world that has been obtained by experiment and observation. There are other, older meanings. At one time it meant all knowledge. This, indeed, is where the word comes from: the Latin word for ‘knowledge’ is scientia.

People acquire knowledge as scientists by engaging in four fundamentally important activities (see ‘The Art of Science’).

  • The first is observation; scientists observe the natural world around them and describe what they see.
  • Second, they try to construct hypotheses to explain or make sense of what they see.
    diagram of gravitational effects

    Mutual gravitational attraction: under Newtonian gravitational theory, all objects attract one another, the amount of attraction being dependent upon the mass of each object. Therefore, although the apple is strongly attracted to the Earth, the Earth is in its turn, attracted to the apple.

  • Third, they carry out experiments, where possible, to test their hypotheses. Once a hypothesis has been tested, by experiments where possible, and found to be consistent with all of the observations, it becomes a scientific theory.
  • Finally, scientists must be able to communicate their findings to other people, to raise public awareness of their studies, and to enable other scientists to build on their work, so extending the knowledge base still further.

The responsibilities of science

The activities of scientists have led, and will continue to lead, to an ever-increasing knowledge of our world. This knowledge has the potential to create untold benefits for humankind, but it also has the potential for inflicting unimaginable harm. It is therefore an important responsibility of all scientists to try to maximise the former and minimise the latter.

The idea that scientists have responsibilities towards society is something we would like you to keep in mind. For the most part, scientists want their discoveries to be used for the benefit of humankind. Occasionally, however, choices are made that result in this knowledge being used in ways that might be considered detrimental.

cartoon of a dozing scientist

Is this your idea of a scientist?

Can you think of one or two examples of ways in which science has been used specifically for the benefit of humankind, and one or two ways in which its use has been detrimental?

You might have come up with the science associated with medical research or some aspects of agriculture as beneficial examples, and developments in atomic,biological or chemical warfare as being detrimental.

There are many instances where scientific knowledge has been used in what scientists believed were our best interests, but which later turned out to have some damaging consequences for, say, the environment. One such example is our use of fuels, such as coal and oil, to generate electricity. Most of us would regard electricity as being beneficial to society. However, the burning of these fuels releases the gas carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and this gas may be influencing world climates adversely.

From what you have read so far, can you recall some other examples of areas where scientific developments have had unintentionally damaging consequences?

Fertilisers, intended to help grow healthier crops to feed more people, may end up depleting rivers and lakes of their oxygen, and so killing the animals that live in them. Industries manufacturing goods intended to raise our standard of living may discharge waste products into rivers and lakes, and it may only be discovered years later that these discharges are toxic.

Unintentional damage is an ongoing hazard of scientific and technological progress. In the mid- to late-1990s, scientific research began to uncover an increase in sterility and sexual abnormality in male fish living in rivers and lakes polluted by certain types of industrial chemicals. Parallel studies of human males across Europe, including Britain, also suggested an increase in potential sterility, and an increase in those born with sexual abnormalities, since the 1970s.

The chemicals suspected of causing these harmful effects have a structure which is very similar to that of oestrogen (pronounced ‘east-roe-jen’), the female hormone used in many contraceptive pills. As the use of these chemicals is widespread – from the manufacture of plastics, carpets and wood-pulp, to ingredients in paints, industrial detergents and pesticides – eliminating them from the environment is not easy. Fortunately, the great increase in environmental awareness during the 1980s and 1990s has encouraged many scientists to use their knowledge to find ways of putting past damage to rights, and of managing the environment more effectively.

But it isn’t only scientists who have a part to play in this; everyone has a responsibility. Part of the responsibility of being a scientist is trying to predict the long-term effects of the possible uses of scientific discoveries. This raises the question of whether knowledge should ever be suppressed if its knock-on effects might prove harmful to society... Which then raises further questions.





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