Science is a process by which evidence, obtained by systematic experiment or observation, is used to verify or negate hypotheses about any aspect of the universe leading to an accumulation of a body of knowledge and principles. Popular usage of the word ‘science’, however, tends to refer to the actual knowledge and to any technology which derives from its application, rather than to the process itself. The process of science is international and is prosecuted by many thousands of experimental scientists who work in universities, government or commercial laboratories. The information gathered from these activities is promulgated internationally through the publication of specialist journals (of which there are several hundred), which report regularly the data obtained by experimental scientists throughout the world. The quality of science published is regulated by peer review. Eventually, and necessarily in sanitized form, this information finds its way into teaching textbooks, thus establishing a body of consensual knowledge. Much of this body of knowledge, however, is provisional pending the appearance of new, clarifying or even contradictory data and so cannot be considered to be ‘truth’, except in certain simple circumstances. However, the majority of scientific information forms an empirical knowledge base of sufficient accuracy and validity to allow very sophisticated technological and medical achievements. Science itself is simply a process which is driven by a combination of philosophical inquisitiveness, commercial considerations and the personal aspirations of individual scientists. Most basic research is funded by tax revenue. It is generally agreed that physics (with the aid of mathematics) is the core science, since although complex and difficult for non-specialists, it deals with the fundamental properties of matter and energy which give rise to all the more complex phenomena of cosmology and astrophysics, chemistry, geology and biology. These fundamental particles and their energies of interaction can usually be studied on earth only in the high-energy conditions available in particle accelerators, since their association into the more familiar guises of atoms and molecules are extremely stable under normal earth conditions of temperature and pressure. Chemistry is the study and exploitation of the behaviour and interactions of atoms to form molecules, whose interactions occur readily under earth conditions. The highest levels of complexity arise in the biosphere, where extremely complex chemical systems which have evolved over the last 3–4 billion years are present as cells and living organisms, and these organisms interact with each other and the environment to form ecosystems and the entire interactive system of the entirety of the living world known as the biosphere.
   Science (in its pure form) differs from pure philosophy in that it is based on evidence. While philosophy may have sharpened the use of logic and symbolic analysis, only science can yield new knowledge about the universe and provide the raw material for philosophical debate. The beginnings of the accumulation of knowledge about ourselves and our environment were necessarily conducted in the absence of much real information, in a situation where sets of beliefs, arguably manipulated for social and political advantage, formed the context of such understanding. Because the implications of the real information which became available to refine knowledge through the efforts of systematic observation and investigation often contradicted the original beliefs, there has been continuous conflict between the belief systems and the knowledge system of science. This conflict will probably always remain even if its centre of gravity shifts into the scientific sphere (which has its own set of belief systems), partly for simple reasons of conservatism, prejudice and lack of enthusiasm of those in power to relinquish it, and partly because some aspects of human activity and even the behaviour of aspects of the physical universe may never be amenable to a cogent knowledge-based explanation. The conflict is still clearly visible in the often futile debates between ‘science’ and ‘religion’. It has been an interesting feature of British culture in particular and that of the western world in general that even basic scientific knowledge is not considered a necessary ingredient for ‘intellectual’ activity. The unexpected success of books in which the scientific arguments underlying current knowledge of some of the fundamental aspects our universe are discussed suggest that there is a previously unexploited enthusiasm for this knowledge which may lead to a reappraisal of such ignorance.

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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