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A Student's Guide to Natural Science

  • by Stephen M. Barr


The “natural sciences” include physics, astronomy, geology, chemistry, and biology, and are usually referred to as such in contradistinction to the “human sciences,” such as anthropology, sociology, and linguistics. Of course, there is some overlap. Those disciplines which study human beings as biological organisms belong to both the natural and the human sciences.

In such a guide as this it would be impossible to give equal attention to all branches of natural science; I have therefore chosen to emphasize physics and, to a lesser extent, astronomy. There are several reasons for this choice. First, breakthroughs in these fields produced the Scientific Revolution and inaugurated the era of modern science. Second, physics can be regarded as the most fundamental branch of natural science, since the laws of physics govern the processes studied in all the other branches. Natural scientists tend to look at things from a “bottom up” perspective, in which the behavior of complex systems is accounted for in terms of the interactions of their constituents, and the branch of science that studies the most basic constituents of matter and their interactions is physics. Third, it can be said that developments in physics and astronomy have had the most profound impact on philosophical thought—along with Darwin’s theory of evolution. Finally, there is the fact that I am myself a physicist.

Science was done in each of the great ancient civilizations of Asia, Africa, and the Americas. However, the story of science, as usually told, traces a path from the ancient Greeks and their precursors in Babylon and Egypt, through the Islamic world, and into Europe. There is good reason for this. All of modern science stems from the Scientific Revolution, which erupted in Europe in the 1600s and had its roots in the achievements of the ancient Greeks. The scientific developments that took place in other parts of the world in ancient times, though quite impressive in their own right, made little or no contribution to the Western Scientific Revolution and thus had hardly any lasting impact. (There are exceptions; for example, the concept of the number zero was first developed in India; it made its way into Europe through the Arabs.) From the sixteenth century through the nineteenth, advances in science came almost exclusively from within Europe’s borders. It was not until the twentieth century that science became a truly global enterprise.

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