What is science anyway? (part 1)


What is science?

So imagine you’re lying back on the grass, maybe even high on grass, and you’re staring at the night sky with a friend and you’re both like whoooooa! Stars!

Then for some reason you decide you want to know which star is closest to the earth (you’re both too stoned to remember that the sun is a star).

‘That one! It’s brightest so it must be the closest!’
‘Maybe it’s just bigger than the others but it’s further away..’
‘Is it even a star? Maybe it’s a planet!’
‘Hey! It’s moving – it’s a UFO!’

Now you might have a gut feeling about which star is the closest and so does your friend but you don’t agree. How do you find out who is right? Or if both of you are wrong?

If you were to ask which star is the most beautiful that would be a matter of opinion. You and your friend could see it differently and that would be okay. You’re entitled to have your own points of view.

You can’t have your own facts though. Some stars are closer to the earth and some are further away. That’s true whether you’re looking and thinking about the night sky or not.

That’s where science comes in.

It’s a way of finding out what is true and what is not. Regardless of what we want to be true.

A scientist might have their heart set on the brightest star in virgo being the closest (their mother was a virgo..), but by using clever geometry they can actually find out.  It turns out that the closest star to the Earth is proxima centauri – and it can’t even be seen without a telescope!

Once the results are clear the scientist would have no choice but to accept the result.

Science is the power to change your own mind

When it comes to looking out at space not everything has been worked out though. We’ve been looking at the stars through powerful telescopes since the days of Galileo but it was only in 1995 that the first planet outside the solar system (called an exoplanet) was confirmed. Before that it was just a guess if there even were any. Astronomers argued about it all the time.

Now we’ve found over 4000 exoplanets and our best guess is there might be 11 billion of them out there.

Science wasn’t wrong before the first exoplanet was found. It was just incomplete. It is on many things, to be honest. Science is very much a work in progress.

But once the evidence began to build up even those who doubted there were exoplanets out there changed their minds.

Not all questions have such easy answers, of course. Soon we’ll look at what science can tell us and what it can’t. But what makes science unique as a form of knowledge is how it works things out.

All of us look at the world and come to our own conclusions about it. Trouble is, we have our own brains get in the way. We have biases and prejudices, we’re stubborn and lazy (that’s true of scientists, too, by the way, they’re human, too – a point we will remind ourselves of often!) but science offers us a way to overcome them.


With something called the scientific method.



Further reading:

https://www.brainpickings.org/2012/04/06/what-is-science/ – some great quotes from renowned scientists about what science is

https://www.sciencefriday.com/segments/carl-sagan-science-is-a-way-of-thinking/ – audio interview with the late Carl Sagan, one of the great science communicators.