Mike Ko Personal Portfolio

 

Home-School Education
2001-2012
Hong Kong

University of Durham
Bachelor of Science
2014-2017
United Kingdom

University of Sussex

Master of Arts
2017-2018
United Kingdom



Writing - Original

The Nature of Science

 

                                       

 

                        In a modern person's lifetime, one would probably have turned a light switch on and off for more than 504,000 times. It is also very likely that many people may only have some ideas as to how the switch works or about the electrical principles that light up a lamp. On a higher level, whole populations use electricity every day, but only a few will give thought as to how we can harness and use such energy. The clothes that we wear nowadays are often made from synthetic materials, yet how did we create these materials in the first place? All of the things mentioned above, and many other things as well, are made possible by advancements in science, which may or may not lead to technological advancements.

                        These advancements are often taken for granted. But the irony is that there can be so much at stake with each breakthrough. They might lead to food that are more healthy or nutritious, to renewable energy sources, or (for more destructive purposes) devices of war. Given that there are so many things in human society that stems from science, it is surprising that many of us are not familiar with science or its purpose (indeed, people sometimes reject aspects of science in the name of religion). And it's not just about how electric turbines work; it's about science as a discipline. Here I shall give a brief explanation of science and its role in society.

What is Science?

                        Science, in a nutshell, is the study of nature. The term 'nature' here not only refers to the life that exists on Earth, (be they plants, animals, bacteria, or the rest) but to the non-living domain as well. This can range from your computer to a dust particle to a thunderstorm, and ultimately to the entire universe. Specifically, however, science can be taken as the body of knowledge which explains how nature works. With such a collection, we are in the position to understand and explain numerous natural phenomena, like why sweat can cool your body, rust forms on metals, and how our ultimate source of energy comes from the Sun. And how did we get so large a body of knowledge? Through observing and reasoning.

                        When a scientist has observed a phenomenon which at the present cannot be explained, he or she will try to come up with a hypothesis, an educated guess that can explain the phenomenon. When there is a suitable hypothesis, the scientist can start gathering evidence to support the hypothesis. If the evidence is against the hypothesis, then such a guess must be either modified or scrapped. If, on the other hand, enough evidence that verifies or supports the hypothesis accumulates, then the hypothesis can be called a theory. The everyday use of the word 'theory' and its use in scientific context have some differences between them, which can cause confusion. Usually when we use the word 'theory', we mean 'a guess'. But when used in science, a theory is a hypothesis that has verified experiments that supports its validity. So, when we assemble all of our theories together, we have a whole system of knowledge that can explain various things in our world (though it is by no means complete).

                        Yet because the range of things that science covers is nearly endless, we would only have a mass of incoherent and random information, with no way to link them to each other if we don't categorize them. When separated into fields of related concepts, you can look into the facts at a detailed level while keeping the big picture in mind as well (but not so big so that you feel like you're searching for needles in a haystack). The following are brief descriptions of the three major fields in science. Their order of arrangement has nothing to do with their relative importance.

                        Chemistry: often described as the 'central science'. Chemistry is mainly about the chemical composition of the universe, namely atoms and their constituent particles, and how they interact with each other. Because most things around us are made of atoms, learning about their properties and knowing how they can react to form other substances is vital to our understanding of nature.

                        Physics: sometimes called the 'basic science'. Physics looks into the rules of the physical world around us. It ranges from tangible properties like masses and motion, to more abstract properties like electromagnetism and relativity.

                        Biology: occasionally referred to as 'life science'. Biology is the study of life. We have a particular interest in this field because we, as humans, are part of it in a sense. In this field, you can explore how life's instruction depends on a language called DNA that has only 4 letters, how evolution explains how we became what we are now, and perhaps why the dog next door doesn't seem to quite like you. In other words, Biology is all about reproduction, survival, reproduction again, and everything in between.

                        One might be tempted to compare them so as to determine which is more important and which one of the three is the fundamental science. The truth is that none of them can claim any superiority over the others, for they are all interrelated. Every field has some concepts that also apply to the others. Thermodynamics provides a case of point. It is an important concept in Physics as it - among other things - looks into the heat exchange between objects. But it is also used in Chemistry to see how much heat will be absorbed or released in a reaction, which can be used to judge the possibility of such a reaction occurring. And because we have a lot of chemical reactions in our bodies, it can also provide insight in Biology as to what is going on inside us. Chemistry, Physics, and Biology are all inter-connected. Each studies a somewhat different aspect of Nature, but when combined they offer a glimpse into its general principles as a whole.

The Role of Science

                        In the end, however, science must have practical uses if we are to truly call it useful. The most familiar usage comes in the form of technology. The Industrial Revolution (steam engines), electricity (turbo generators), and computers (transistors), are all results of innovations in technology. All of these have improved our lives and have profound effects on society.

                        Another form of such practical usage of science is to use it as a guide in making decisions. Nuclear disarmament is supported by most developed countries due to their knowledge of the possible risks and consequences of using nuclear weapons. Likewise, the Kyoto Protocol (ratified by many countries to reduce carbon emissions) was made due to evidence that the Earth is warming.

                        More specifically, science can give us the costs and benefits of different available options. Take nuclear power as an example. Benefits include a decrease in reliance on fossil fuels, no carbon dioxide emissions, and renewable fuel source. Costs include risk of radiation leaks or nuclear meltdown. When we have all the facts, we must weigh the costs and benefits against each other. Can we properly contain any radiation leaks? How much carbon emissions can be reduced? Is it viable to use it as our major source of energy?

                        However, we - as society - are the ones who ultimately make decisions (for better or worse), and consequently there will always be human error. Such is the double-edged nature of science; its effect depends on how we use it. But then again, how do we actually define what is a good call and what is a bad call? Electricity might have improved our lives, but it is also a cause of global warming, which if we let the situation get out of hand, might render the planet inhospitable. And what has brought us electricity? Science.

                        As another example, medicine might have improved our chances of survival when ill, but are we in the process of pushing bacteria and viruses to a more extreme edge so that it will be harder to fight them in future generations? We might even be disrupting the ecology of the planet for all we know. And why do we have medicine in the first place? Science.

                        Electricity has changed society so much that we can now barely imagine our lives without it, and the same can be said for the medical advances that can save millions of lives. Yet as we have seen, they can also have downsides. Ultimately, it all comes down to trade-offs, whether they are at the present or in the future; in short run or in long run. We might be trading off our future health for better health at the present, or fuel and other resources of future usage for our present needs.

                        We constantly make decisions on trade-offs, and we can never be sure if that is right or that is wrong. A decision might result in dire consequences, but the alternative might be even worse, and vice-versa. There is no right or wrong decisions, only decisions which we think will make tomorrow a better place to live. In this process, science can provide facts or show possible consequences. Hence we can at least decide on a consequence which is, albeit only to a certain extent, predictable. That, apart from studying and understanding nature, is Science's role in society.


                                                                                                                                                                  Mike Ko
                                                                                                                                                                  ( 1,563 words )

 

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