by Maurice Goldsmith

Science is a cumulative body of knowledge about the natural world, obtained by the application of a particular method practised by the scientist. The word science itself is derived from the Latin scire, to know, to have knowledge of, to experience. Technology is the fruit of applied science: it is the concrete expression of research done in the laboratory and applied to manufacturing commodities to meet human needs. The word scientist was introduced only in 1840 by William Whewell, Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Cambridge. (Whewell was a friend of Faraday, and helped him in inventing the terminology of electrochemistry.) In his Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, he wrote: "We need a name to describe a cultivator of science in general. I should be inclined to call him a scientist." The "cultivators of science" before 1840 were known as "natural philosophers". The founders of the 300-year-old Royal Society were typical "natural philosophers". They were curious, often eccentric, persons who poked inquiring fingers at nature. In the process of doing so they started a technique of inquiry we know today as "the scientific method".

Briefly, these are the steps in "the method". First comes the thought that sparks off the inquiry. (For example, in 1896, the physicist Henri Becquerel (1852-1909), in communications to the French Academy of Sciences, stated that lie found that uranium salts emitted spontaneously rays of unknown nature. His discovery excited Marie Curie (18671934). With her husband Pierre (1859-1906), she wanted to know more about this radiation. What was it exactly, and where did it come from?)

Second comes the collecting of facts: the techniques of doing this will differ according to the problem to be solved. But it is based on experiment in which you may use anything from a test-tube to an earth satellite to gather the essential data. (If you do not know the difficulties which the Curies encountered to gather their facts, as they investigated the mysterious uranium rays, I advise you to read the remarkable story in the book Madame Curie by her daughter Eve.)

This leads to step three: organizing the facts and studying the relationships that emerge. (These rays were different from anything known. How to explain this? Did this radiation come from the atom itself? It might well be that other materials also have the property of emitting this radiation. Mme Curie investigated and found this was so. She invented the word radioactivity for this phenomenon. She followed this with further experimental work on only "active" radio-elements.)

Step four is the statement of an hypothesis or theory: that is, framing a general truth that has emerged, and that may be modified as new facts emerge. (In July 1898, the Curies announced the probable presence in pitchblende ores of a new element endowed with powerful radioactivity. This was the beginning of the discovery of radium.)

Then follows the clearer statement of the theory. (In December 1898, the Curies reported to the Academy of Sciences:

And the final step is the practical test of the theory - the prediction of new facts. This is essential, because from this flows the possibility of control by man of the forces of nature that are newly revealed.

Note how Marie Curie used deductive reasoning in order to push on. This kind of detective work is basic to the methodology of science. Further, that she was concerned with probability - and not certainty - in her investigations. Also, although the Curies were doing the basic research work at great expense to themselves in hard physical toil, they knew that they were part of an international group of people all concerned with their search for truth. Their reports were published and immediately examined by scientists all over the world. Any flaws in their argument would be pointed out to them immediately.

(from The Young Scientist's Companion, Souvenir Press, London, 1961)