Sunday, June 8, 2008

History of science

Well into the eighteenth century, science and natural philosophy were not quite synonymous, but only became so later with the direct use of what would become known formally as the scientific method, which was earlier developed during the Middle Ages and early modern period in Europe and the Middle East (see History of scientific method). Prior to the 18th century, however, the preferred term for the study of nature was natural philosophy, while English speakers most typically referred to the study of the human mind as moral philosophy. By contrast, the word "science" in English was still used in the 17th century to refer to the Aristotelian concept of knowledge which was secure enough to be used as a sure prescription for exactly how to do something. In this differing sense of the two words, the philosopher John Locke in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding wrote that "natural philosophy [the study of nature] is not capable of being made a science".

By the early 1800s, natural philosophy had begun to separate from philosophy, though it often retained a very broad meaning. In many cases, science continued to stand for reliable knowledge about any topic, in the same way it is still used in the broad sense (see the introduction to this article) in modern terms such as library science, political science, and computer science. In the more narrow sense of science, as natural philosophy became linked to an expanding set of well-defined laws (beginning with Galileo's laws, Kepler's laws, and Newton's laws for motion), it became more popular to refer to natural philosophy as natural science. Over the course of the nineteenth century, moreover, there was an increased tendency to associate science with study of the natural world (that is, the non-human world). This move sometimes left the study of human thought and society (what would come to be called social science) in a linguistic limbo by the end of the century and into the next.

Through the 19th century, many English speakers were increasingly differentiating science (meaning a combination of what we now term natural and biological sciences) from all other forms of knowledge in a variety of ways. The now-familiar expression “scientific method,” which refers to the prescriptive part of how to make discoveries in natural philosophy, was almost unused during the early part of the 19th century, but became widespread after the 1870s, though there was rarely totally agreement about just what it entailed. The word "scientist," meant to refer to a systematically-working natural philosopher, (as opposed to an intuitive or empirically-minded one) was coined in 1833 by William Whewell. Discussion of scientists as a special group of people who did science, even if their attributes were up for debate, grew in the last half of the 19th century. Whatever people actually meant by these terms at first, they ultimately depicted science, in the narrow sense of the habitual use of the scientific method and the knowledge derived from it, as something deeply distinguished from all other realms of human endeavor.

By the twentieth century, the modern notion of science as a special brand of information about the world, practiced by a distinct group and pursued through a unique method, was essentially in place. It was used to give legitimacy to a variety of fields through such titles as "scientific" medicine, engineering, advertising, or motherhood. Over the 1900s, links between science and technology also grew increasingly strong. By the end of the century, it is arguable that technology had even begun to eclipse science as a term of public attention and praise. Scholarly studies of science have begun to refer to "technoscience" rather than science of technology separately. Meanwhile, such fields as biotechnology and nanotechnology are capturing the headlines. One author has suggested that, in the coming century, "science" may fall out of use, to be replaced by technoscience or even by some more exotic label such as "techknowledgy."

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