What is science?
Science is the concerted human effort to understand, or to understand better, the history of the natural world and how the natural world works, with observable physical evidence as the basis of that understanding1. It is done through observation of natural phenomena, and/or through experimentation that tries to simulate natural processes under controlled conditions. (There are, of course, more definitions of science.)
Consider some examples. An ecologist observing the territorial behaviors of bluebirds and a geologist examining the distribution of fossils in an outcrop are both scientists making observations in order to find patterns in natural phenomena. They just do it outdoors and thus entertain the general public with their behavior. An astrophysicist photographing distant galaxies and a climatologist sifting data from weather balloons similarly are also scientists making observations, but in more discrete settings.
The examples above are observational science, but there is also experimental science. A chemist observing the rates of one chemical reaction at a variety of temperatures and a nuclear physicist recording the results of bombardment of a particular kind of matter with neutrons are both scientists performing experiments to see what consistent patterns emerge. A biologist observing the reaction of a particular tissue to various stimulants is likewise experimenting to find patterns of behavior. These folks usually do their work in labs and wear impressive white lab coats, which seems to mean they make more money too.
The critical commonality is that all these people are making and recording observations of nature, or of simulations of nature, in order to learn more about how nature, in the broadest sense, works. We'll see below that one of their main goals is to show that old ideas (the ideas of scientists a century ago or perhaps just a year ago) are wrong and that, instead, new ideas may better explain nature.
So why do science? I - the individual perspective
So why are all these people described above doing what they're doing? In most cases, they're collecting information to test new ideas or to disprove old ones. Scientists become famous for discovering new things that change how we think about nature, whether the discovery is a new species of dinosaur or a new way in which atoms bond. Many scientists find their greatest joy in a previously unknown fact (a discovery) that explains something problem previously not explained, or that overturns some previously accepted idea.
That's the answer based on noble principles, and it probably explains why many people go into science as a career. On a pragmatic level, people also do science to earn their paychecks. Professors at most universities and many colleges are expected as part of their contractual obligations of employment to do research that makes new contributions to knowledge. If they don't, they lose their jobs, or at least they get lousy raises.
Scientists also work for corporations and are paid to generate new knowledge about how a particular chemical affects the growth of soybeans or how petroleum forms deep in the earth. These scientists get paid better, but they may work in obscurity because the knowledge they generate is kept secret by their employers for the development of new products or technologies. In fact, these folks at Megacorp do science, in that they and people within their company learn new things, but it may be years before their work becomes science in the sense of a contribution to humanity's body of knowledge beyond Megacorp's walls.
Why do Science? II - The Societal Perspective
If the ideas above help explain why individuals do science, one might still wonder why societies and nations pay those individuals to do science. Why does a society devote some of its resources to this business of developing new knowledge about the natural world, or what has...
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