What is Science?

This is SCIENCE IN THE NEWS, in VOA Special English. I'm Bob Doughty. And I'm Sarah Long. Our subject this week is the science of ... science.

Each week we present reports about science. These are about many different subjects. They can be about volcanoes exploding, developments of improved farm crops, archeology, space, new treatments for diseases. We say they are about science, but we rarely, if ever, say what science is.

In Special English we are very careful how we say things. We write our reports so that they are correct and can be easily understood. Our science reports usually are the most difficult programs to write.

We use a limited number of words, and we want to write very simply and clearly. This makes it difficult to write about complex scientific subjects. For example, we write about developments in efforts to find a way to fight and cure diseases such as cancer or AIDS.

We must find a way, in Special English, to describe how enzymes and proteins affect the structure of cells that are part of the human body's system that defends against disease. This is an example of science.

We tell about how the continents on our planet are always moving.

We report on how the use of sonar in the ocean may affect whales. Or of warnings that great apes may be in danger of disappearing from Earth.

We tell about discoveries of how humans made high-quality steel thousands of years ago.

We report on progress in the study of the particles smaller than atoms. And of information gathered by the spacecraft Cassini at the planet Saturn.

Week after week there are stories of discovery in the news. Some days the news is exciting. Some days it is not so exciting. And some days … well, some days are like last Wednesday.

That was the day a small spacecraft returned to Earth after a flight to collect particles expelled from the Sun. These atoms, highly charged with electricity, are called solar wind. The elements in solar wind could help explain more about the birth of our solar system.

The American space agency, NASA, launched the robotic vehicle Genesis in August of two thousand one.

Early last Wednesday, Genesis released a one-and-a-half-meter-wide capsule to land with the particles of solar wind. Engineers designed the capsule with a parachute to be caught by a hook connected to a helicopter.

Two helicopters were ready and in position for the catch ... except the parachute never deployed.

The Genesis capsule fell from the sky, turning end over end, above the desert of the American West. It crashed and lay half-buried in the sand of the Air Force's Utah Test and Training Range.

The capsule broke open. Still, scientists are hopeful that they will be able to study pieces of the Sun. But risks like the crash of the Genesis capsule are a part of science.

Yet what exactly is science? The most simple definition is that science is knowledge. It is knowledge gained through observation and study.

The scientific method is the use of rules and systems for gaining knowledge. There are three parts to the scientific method. The first part is recognizing and understanding problems. The second is collecting information through observation and experiment. The third part is developing and testing theories.

For example, when scientists observe something happen, they try to develop a theory about how it happens and what causes it to happen. A theory is a possible explanation for an event. Scientists then test that theory by using experiments. They hope to prove that their explanation is correct. If the scientists can prove their theory, it becomes a fact. A fact is something known or proved to be true.

Scientists are like other investigators. They try to gather as much evidence as possible to explain events. This idea -- that science can provide the answers -- often brings science into conflict with religion.

People may separate the two by thinking of science as a process of gaining knowledge and religion as a system of beliefs. There are people who believe in science like a religion. But science and religion both seek to explain the mysteries of the universe, of nature and of ourselves.

NASA clearly recognized this fact when it chose the name Genesis for its spacecraft that collected atoms from the Sun. Both the Jewish and Christian bibles begin with the Book of Genesis. It describes how God created the heavens and the Earth, and brought light to the universe.

In ancient times, many, many things in the world were great mysteries to people. Ancient humans could explain these things only as the work of gods. These explanations became part of religious beliefs. As years passed and human knowledge expanded, many beliefs came to be explained scientifically.

Sometimes, solving the mysteries by scientific study showed that religious teachings were wrong. This often angered religious leaders. An example is how the Roman Catholic Church reacted to the idea that the Earth was not the center of the universe.

In fourteen ninety-seven, the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus observed that the Earth moved in an orbit around the Sun. He used the scientific method to show that the Earth was not the center of the universe.

His discovery conflicted with the beliefs and teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, as well as other religious groups. More than one hundred years later, the church tried and condemned Galileo Galilei for saying that Copernicus was right. Galileo was an Italian mathematician, physicist and astronomer.

The church had taught for centuries that the Sun, all the planets and the stars orbited around the Earth. Three hundred fifty years passed before the Roman Catholic Church admitted officially that it was wrong. It withdrew its condemnation of Galileo.

In eighteen fifty-nine, the British scientist Charles Darwin published a book. It was called "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection." In this book, Darwin explained his theory that all living things developed, or evolved, from simple organisms.

He wrote that these organisms changed over millions of years to produce all the different kinds of plants and animals, including humans. To prove his theory of evolution, Darwin used the scientific method. For five years he traveled around the world, observing different plants and animals.

The studies showed Darwin that some animals and plants have abilities that help them survive in the struggle for life. He found that they pass these abilities along when they reproduce. Other plants and animals, he said, are less able to survive or reproduce and may disappear. Darwin came to believe that all modern creatures had developed from a few earlier ones.

The book had a major effect. Many people who believed strongly in the influence of God condemned Darwin. His ideas conflicted with the teachings of creationism. This the idea that God created the universe and all living things fully formed.

In any case, scientists consider that much of modern science evolved from the work of Charles Darwin.

Some people reject scientific ideas that conflict with their religious beliefs. Some reject religious beliefs that conflict with their scientific ideas. And some would agree with Wilton Robert Abbott, an aerospace engineer who is given credit for this saying:

"To understand the place of humans in the universe is to solve a complex problem. Therefore, I find it impossible to believe that an understanding based entirely on science or one based entirely on religion can be correct."

Probably the greatest scientist of the twentieth century was Albert Einstein. He had no problem mixing science and religion. Einstein once said that the religious experience is the strongest and the most honorable force behind scientific research.

SCIENCE IN THE NEWS was written by Oliver Chanler and Caty Weaver. Cynthia Kirk was our producer. This is Bob Doughty. And this is Sarah Long. If you have a question or comment for us, write to [email protected], or VOA Special English, Washington D.C., two-zero-two-three-seven, USA.

You can learn more about the Genesis spacecraft tomorrow at this time on EXPLORATIONS. And please join us again next week for more news about science, in Special English, on the Voice of America.

Voice of America Special English

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