THE BLOG

Science Is: A Question

08/20/2013 03:17 pm ET | Updated Oct 20, 2013

Perusing these articles I come into contact with many people and it has occurred to me that scientific thought has become so vital to our society that we now take it for granted, and in so doing have lost sight of just what science is, and most especially what science is not.

Let us begin with what science is not. Science is not an ideology or a religion. Science is not an orthodoxy, despite how important and ingrained some theories become; more on that much later. Science is not an academic oligarchy, or the prestige of residency. Science--while it may contain and even be motivated by art and artistic thinkers--is not itself an art.

Science is a way of thinking about the Universe in terms of measurable and empirical evidence, ergo science is also a method of testing the same, and it is about that method that I am writing today. It seems so elementary to be going back to this science fair minutiae, but that is only because the scientific method makes so much damned sense that even evangelicals have seized upon it much to our comic relief. We barely think about it anymore and so we have become careless to the extent that a sizable portion of Americans actually believe modern humans walked with dinosaurs despite the overwhelming contradiction found in the fossil record.

Back to the basics we go:

  1. Question
  2. Hypothesis
  3. Prediction
  4. Testing/Observation
  5. Analysis/Conclusion

It begins with a question, and not just any question, a question we can build upon and refine. A common example: "Why is the sky blue?" This is the part of science where we build upon what we already know. The question should drive some preliminary research into the topic. What do we already know about the sky? We Google "Why is the sky blue?" We learn right off the sky is what we see looking out into space--which is black--and that between you and the sky is a dense layer of gas called the atmosphere. Perhaps the atmosphere could have something to do with why the sky is blue.

No one is asking us to take the word of the internet without proof, of course. Do we doubt the existence of the atmosphere? Do we wish to see more evidence supporting its existence? This is a perfect opportunity to learn about it. Look up pictures of the Earth as taken from the Apollo missions, or high altitude pictures of the "thin blue line." One important thing about science is mutability. If we see overwhelming evidence in favor of the existence of the atmosphere the scientific thing to do is concede and accept its existence. It is not at all scientific to simply take a contrary position and deny observation for the sake of denial. Follow the evidence.

Having learned about the atmosphere we would have learned it is composed of numerous gasses. We could then study these gasses in greater detail, or feeling confident about the evidence thus far we could cut straight to the prevailing answer: visible light is comprised of numerous wavelengths of light that we perceive as colors arrayed in what we call the spectrum of visible light. Light near the blue end of the spectrum is more readily scattered by the molecules comprising the gasses of our atmosphere.

So, when we look at the blue sky what we are seeing is blue light scattered and diffused making the sky look blue, while other wavelengths of light pass without that kind of interaction. We may also be surprised this basic question is still a subject of great debate, but this prevailing theory--called Critical Opalescence--was calculated by Albert Einstein between 1910 and 1911 and correlates with physical observation. There are certainly those who disagree, and it would help if we also defined, "quantitative."

You began with a question: Why is the sky blue? Researching this question you could then refine and focus it. Instead, you could ask: Is critical opalescence really quantitative? With that question you could proceed further by researching Einstein's calculations and testing them for yourself. For this task, however, a hypothesis would be handy.

Until next time!