Science Essentials

What is Science?

In the previous quiz, we explored how, under the philosophy of skeptical empiricism, science is ongoing and self-correcting. In this quiz, we will examine in more detail how this is accomplished by defining what science actually is. Defining science and its attributes isn’t easy. We’ll focus on understanding and identifying the characteristics of science that make it purposeful by taking a look into the development of the world’s first vaccine!

                           

What is Science?

Science comes from the Latin word scientia which translates to “knowledge.” Science is the systematic process that develops our understanding of how the universe works and the testable body of knowledge accumulated through that process. In other words, science is both what we know about the universe and how we acquire that knowledge. We describe science as systematic because science follows a system, method, or plan—the scientific process—which we will explore in this quiz.

This definition may seem very open-ended. That’s intentional, as science describes a highly variable collection of knowledge and activities. We can tie our definition of science back into what we’ve learned thus far. If science is knowledge, then skeptical empiricism is how we think in order to gain that knowledge!

                           

What is Science?

Science builds our understanding of the world through the scientific process, in which we ask questions and design experiments to answer those questions. The scientific process is the means by which scientists study the universe, and it is guided by skeptical empiricism! By breaking down the scientific process, we can better understand how modern science is conducted. There are many different names and representations of the scientific process.

Based on our exploration of skeptical empiricism, which of the following representations more accurately portrays how modern science is approached?

                           

What is Science?

At Brilliant, we embrace the fluid nature of scientific inquiry. Different questions require different types of experiments to answer them. Successful scientists decide how to continue by considering their unique circumstances, data, and results.

The scientific process can be broken down into different steps, which we show in the diagram below:

The steps are useful for guiding practical scientific inquiry and experimentation. However, it is important to realize that the scientific process does not usually occur in a single, predictable order. This is represented by the web of interconnecting steps in our model of the process. As we continue in this quiz, we will explore the steps of the inquiry process using Edward Jenner’s discovery of the smallpox vaccine!

                           

What is Science?

Edward Jenner

Edward Jenner

Edward Jenner was an English doctor and scientist who lived at a time when deadly smallpox was thriving. The highly contagious disease is estimated to have killed 30% of the people it infected, amassing hundreds of millions of deaths over centuries. Those who survived were left with terrible scars and possibly even blindness.

We're going to engage in scientific inquiry by journeying back to Jenner's time. Just like Jenner, we're going to investigate smallpox by making some observations about a late \(18^\text{th}\) century village.

                           

What is Science?

The scientific process begins with observations. When we make observations, we use our senses or tools to gather information about the world around us. You have been making observations about the world everyday since you were born. For example, you’ve observed that the sun appears to rise and set and that, when you drop objects, they fall towards the ground. It’s these observations that allow you to make sense of everything around you and how the world works. All in all, humans have been making observations about our natural world since before the rise of civilization, and we’ve used these observations to build an increasingly complex picture of our world. Observations serve as the foundational fuel for the scientific inquiry process! With this in mind, let's make some observations about smallpox in your village.

It’s 1796 in England, and the notorious and deadly disease smallpox is ravaging your town, Whistlebury. Below is a table showing how smallpox has infected people of different occupations across Whistlebury. What can you observe about smallpox in your town based on this table?

Note: Observations can take the form of direct physical observation. However, research is also a form of observation. When we research, we read and interpret others' observations.

                           

Select one or more.

What is Science?

Jenner noticed the same peculiar trend we just saw. Compared to the rest of the population, milkmaids (women who milked cows) were less often infected with smallpox. Not only that, but they were usually immune.

Humanity was not entirely defenseless against smallpox. To protect against infection, a technique called variolation was used in which smallpox scabs and fluids from patients with smallpox (or people recently variolated) were rubbed into shallow skin scratches on healthy individuals. The aim was to cause a milder but otherwise identical infection to smallpox that would protect individuals from typical smallpox. After the infection, they would be immune! Variolation was the standard, and Jenner himself had been variolated with smallpox when he was a child. Why might doctors seek a different approach to variolation?

Smallpox variolation

Smallpox variolation

                           

What is Science?

Now that you’ve noticed this strange trend in the milkmaids of your town and you’re curious, you look into things further by doing some research. The table below details information about both smallpox and cowpox. Cowpox is a disease similar to smallpox that results in pustules on the hands. The much milder disease is acquired from cows. What can you observe about the milkmaids in your town based on this table?

                           

Select one or more.

What is Science?

As we did, Jenner observed that:

  • smallpox variolation causes an infection usually weaker than smallpox, which results in immunity;
  • cowpox is similar but much less dangerous than both smallpox and variolation;
  • milkmaids who have had cowpox do not get smallpox.

Jenner’s observations left him curious. On top of that, variolation was dangerous. So, he wondered if there could be a better alternative.

Observations serve as a starting point of wonder that leads to questions. If answered, which of the following questions could uncover information about why milkmaids seem to be immune to smallpox?

                           

What is Science?

Jenner observed how smallpox infections were affecting different people in his town, and in particular, how it wasn’t affecting the milkmaids. He observed further, as we did, that milkmaids with cowpox do not get smallpox. From this, Jenner had a prediction. He suspected that if a person is infected with cowpox, they will then be immune to smallpox.

This prediction is an example of a hypothesis. A hypothesis is a testable explanation that describes the answer to a scientific question. Hypotheses should be based on observations and research. When something is testable, we can determine the answer with an experiment. Jenner needed to put this hypothesis to the test.

                           

What is Science?

Jenner sought to test out his hypothesis (if a person is infected with cowpox, they will then be immune to smallpox). To test this, Jenner needed to design an experiment. An experiment is an investigation—a way to test the answer to a question we’d like to solve. Which of the following experiments would test his hypothesis?

                           

What is Science?

To test his hypothesis, Jenner infected people with cowpox and then attempted smallpox variolation. His unfortunate first test subject was an eight-year-old boy named James, the son of his gardener. (This was before the development of modern-day bioethics.) Jenner infected James with cowpox from one of his milkmaids. Which of the following results would have confirmed Jenner’s hypothesis?

                           

What is Science?

Luckily, the boy was fine! After he’d recovered from a minor cowpox infection and was variolated for smallpox, he showed no signs of smallpox infection! Jenner didn’t stop there. A single successful result isn’t enough to prove anything. So, he tested out his hypothesis on additional 23 people, all of whom proved to be immune to smallpox. And unlike the old variolation method, cowpox was much less dangerous.

The results of experiments can effectively be seen as new observations, new information, and new knowledge! Experimental results are commonly referred to as experimental data. But in science, the process doesn’t stop here, and it certainly didn’t for Jenner, or Marshall and Warren. With new information, conclusions can be drawn and new questions can be raised. These questions can then be answered, giving us information to ask more questions, digging down deeper and deeper as we uncover more details about what we are investigating.

Like Marshall and Warren, Jenner’s claims were originally met with skepticism. Jenner continued to gather more information from further experiments. Eventually, he had enough to publish his results. It's worth noting that Jenner’s experiments come from a different era—one without access to modern methods and techniques. Science has evolved considerably since then.

Note: There is a lot that goes into formulating a question, hypothesizing, and subsequently designing an experiment to test them. It can be challenging, to say the least, especially if we want our experiment to provide strong, empirical evidence. We’ll explore the art of basic experimental design in greater detail in the next chapter.

                           

What is Science?

A transmission electron micrograph of the now eliminated smallpox virus

A transmission electron micrograph of the now eliminated smallpox virus

So where does this bring us today? Smallpox, one of the most deadly diseases to infect mankind, has been obliterated. Jenner’s treatment for smallpox was developed into a vaccine. The dangerous alternative of smallpox variolation was slowly replaced until it was eventually made illegal in England in 1840. A global crusade to eradicate smallpox has led to the complete eradication of the disease, with not a single case since 1977.

Jenner's pioneering work set the foundation on which others have built. As a result, the thriving field of immunology has blossomed, helping us understand and treat many destructive diseases.

For a moment, consider how much science is a part of your life. Without science, the world would still face the wrath of deadly diseases like smallpox and polio, and we’d have no phones, cars, planes, internet, refrigerators, or even bicycles. Science provides a means for exploration and innovation, opening the doors for new opportunities. All of the technology that our society relies on is a product of science. Science is the foundation of everything! In the next quiz, we'll explore in more detail how we organize the vast quantities of knowledge we have acquired.

                           
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