What Is Science?

Some time ago I was visiting a college in Pakistan.  I thought I was just there as an observer.  My mistake.  I was introduced to a physics class with final words that filled my soul with dread:
" ... from England who is going to give a talk on the topic What is science? ".

Now, when you are put on the spot like that, what do you do?  Well - it's science, so you can't just make stuff up.  You have to tell it like it is.  Fortunately, my bottom line for what constitutes science is all a matter of questions and answers.  Purely from memory, here is my little talk.

What is science?

Science is about asking questions - especially good questions.  But what makes a good question?  I could say: "I know a good question when it is asked.", but that doesn't help you, does it?  Can we agree that a good question seeks to know what is as yet unknown?

Hang on.  If I ask if UFOs exist or if there are little green men on the planet Zonk, are those good questions?  I would say no.  I would say no, because there is no realistic way of answering those questions.  Questions about whether or not something exists have only two scientific answers: "Yes." and "I don't know.".

Does lightning exist?  "Well of course it does." you say.  Right!  That is the first point of agreement in science: we only ask questions about things which we all agree to exist.  If we can't agree, we leave it to philosophers.

We agree that lightning exists.  Now, suppose I suggested that lightning is caused by Thor banging his hammer.  Is there a way of asking questions to prove or disprove my theory?  Can you suggest any experiments?

Well, we know today that lightning is an electric discharge, but how did we come to know it?  The scientists who first learned about electrical discharges noticed that lightning looks like a big bright spark - so they asked a good question: "Is lightning a big bright spark?".

You see, you can ask all sorts of questions but there are good questions and bad questions.

"Is lightning caused by an angry god?"
Bad question: you will never get a clear majority of people to agree that such a god might exist, and if so, by what mean he causes lightning.  Hammer?  Venom?  Nose-blowing?

"Is lightning caused by the same means as the sparks we see in the laboratory?"
Good question: we can conduct experiments to test our ideas.

Benjamin Franklin knew how to ask the right questions about science.  Being impatient to wait for permission to put a lightning rod on a church steeple, Ben Franklin famously flew a kite into a thunderstorm - taking precautions not to invent the world's first electric grill.

Not all scientists are as brave as Ben Franklin.  But every day you will find that someone, somewhere is pushing the boundaries of knowledge by asking the right sort of question - the sort of question that suggests an experiment along the path to a rational answer.

What is science without good questions from an inquiring mind?

Further reading: