CPSP118G Fall Semester: Earth, Life & Time Colloquium

What is Science? What is Natural History?

Thomas R. Holtz, Jr.

Science is somewhat hard to define. Here is a typical definition: The observation, identification, description, experimental investigation, and theoretical explanation of phenomena. Sounds good, but perhaps a bit vague.

Nature is a little easier. Here's Charles Darwin's definition (from the Introduction to The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication): "...I mean by nature only the aggregate action and product of many natural laws, and laws only the ascertained sequence of events."

Given that, science might be considered the process of the description of nature and the discovery of natural laws.

Natural History is typical thought of as that subset of sciences dealing with supramolecular phenomena (i.e., those that deal with object built from molecules on upwards, rather than the realm of molecules, atoms, and subatomic particles). However, all those smaller scale structures do impact directly on the larger world. There is another way of looking at Natural History, though:

So there are some fields of science which describe the change in particular sequence of events through time (e.g., historical geology, paleontology, evolutionary biology, archaeology, cosmology, etc.), and others which describe the products of those changes through time, whose properties can only be truly understood in an historical context (e.g., structural geology, ecology and organismal biology in general, anthropology, astronomy, etc.).

Some attributes of Science:

Often, people ask "what do scientists believe." This is the wrong question! Science is not about belief; it is about discoveries and about the methods by which those discoveries were made and tested.

Through Science, we have discovered many aspects of nature. Here are some of the largest level aspects (finer details would be those covered by different content disciplines):

For the next several weeks we will examine how scientific methodology works, and then we'll start applying that method to understanding how we can answer questions about the history of the Earth and Life (including our own species and societies).

Below are a series of videos that help explain the scientific view of understanding reality and assessing problems, contrasted with supernatural and other non-scientific modes:
Skewed Views of Science


It COULD Just Be Coincidence

Absolutley... Not

The Problem with Annecdotes

Flawed Thinking By Numbers

Last modified: 6 April 2009