The Nature of Science


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Douglas C. Giancoli – Physics for Scientists and Engineers with Modern Physics

The principal aim of all sciences, including physics, is generally considered to be the search for in our observations of the world around us. Many people think that science is a mechanical process of collecting facts and devising theories. But it is not so simple. Science is a creative activity that in many respects resembles other creative activities of the human mind.

One important aspect of science is of events, which includes the design and carrying out of experiments. But observation and experiment require imagination, for scientists can never include everything in a description of what they observe. Hence, scientists must make judgments about what is relevant in their observations and experiments.

Consider, for example how two great minds, Aristotle (384-322 ac.) and Galileo (1564-1642), interpreted motion along a horizontal surface. Aristotle noted that objects given an initial push along the ground (or on a tabletop) always slow down and stop. Consequently, Aristotle argued that the natural state of an object is to be at rest. Galileo, in his re-examination of horizontal motion in the 1600s, imagined that if could eliminated, an object given an initial push along a horizontal surface would continue to move indefinitely without stopping. He concluded that for an object to be in motion was just as natural as for it to be at rest. By inventing a new approach, Galileo founded our modern view of motion, and he did so with a leap of the imagination. Galileo made this leap conceptually, without actually eliminating friction.

Observation, with careful experimentation and measurement, is one side of the scientific process. The other side is the of theories to explain and order the observations. Theories are never derived directly from observations. Observations may help inspire a theory, and theories are accepted or rejected based on the results of observation and experiment.

The great theories of science may be compared, as creative achievements, with great works of art or literature. But how does science differ from these other creative activities? One important difference is that science requires of its ideas or theories to see if their predictions are borne out by experiment.

Although the testing of theories distinguishes science from other creative fields, it should not be assumed that a theory is “proved” by testing. First of all, no measuring instrument is perfect, so exact confirmation is not possible. Furthermore, it is not possible to test a theory in every single possible circumstance. Hence a theory cannot be absolutely verified. Indeed, the history of science tells us that long-held theories can be replaced by new ones.