What is Science?

The three undisputed branches of science, in their broadest definition, are physics, chemistry, and (molecular) biology. Physics investigates the fundamental properties of space, time, and matter; chemistry applies the laws of physics to the study of molecules; and molecular biology explores the (macro)molecules of life. 1

To answer the question raised in the title, I will concentrate only on these three branches. Any attachment of the word “science,” even if modified by adjectives like “soft,” to a nonscientific human activity will distort the true nature of science and allows crackpots and pseudoscientists like Deepak Chopra to take advantage of the distortion and beguile their audience into believing that the nonsense that is being delivered to them has a “scientific” basis.

The Web of Science

In their historical development, one branch contributed to the advancement of others. Atomic theory started by chemists as a hypothetical tool for understanding chemical reactions. As evidence for a material existence of atoms accumulated, physicists concentrated on their structure and discovered quantum theory, which thoroughly explained hydrogen atom, and paved the way for a theoretical understanding of all atoms. Equipped with this indispensable tool, chemists, with the invention of ingenious theoretical approximation methods, coupled with equally ingenious observational techniques, explained the existing materials and predicted new products, which subsequently were manufactured en masse. Substances which could be produced only by living matter became the subject of chemical analysis, leading to organic chemistry, which in turn helped biologists to better understand life. Nowhere in the history of any of these sciences did a scientist, or a group of scientists proclaim the birth of “a new kind of science.”

With the discovery of quantum physics, a hierarchy has been established in these three branches of science. Some scientists, notably the Physics Nobel Laureate, Philip Anderson, equate – or claim that others equate – hierarchy with importance, and from this infer that physics is more important than chemistry, and the latter more important than biology. Anderson even goes so far as to turn “importance” into “arrogance” and apply it not just to (fundamental) physicists, but to fundamental physics itself! This is, of course, completely nonsense. Chemistry uses physics to explain molecules, and biology uses physics and chemistry to understand DNA, the building block of life. This hierarchy neither diminishes the importance of biology nor glorifies the discipline of physics. It is at the root of science as a whole. Perhaps if one thinks of this as the hierarchy of the alphabet, words, and sentences, the notion of “importance” or “arrogance” can be stripped from the word “hierarchy.”

Physics is the alphabet, from which chemists make words, and biologists use the words to make sentences.

No glory or arrogance is attached to the letters of the alphabet; and sentences are not diminished in importance simply because they cannot exist without letters and words.

  1. In naming only these three branches, I do not intend to diminish the importance of other sciences like astronomy, geology, paleontology, archeology, etc. The practitioners of these fields of science apply the tools and techniques of the three main branches in the most inventive inter-disciplinary way to unravel mysteries that are as important as the mystery of atoms, molecules, and life.

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