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Monday, June 30, 2014

The Central Science

Originally Published: June 30, 2014
By: Fangwei Chang

What were the first sciences which we could really consider as being true “sciences” in a modern sense? And importantly, how might one even go about defining a “science”? Wikipedia has something of its own to say: “Science is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe.” And while Wikipedia may be generally taken as a disreputable source, here it seems to have more than a little bit of validity. After all, how else might we have said it? Science is characterized not by its massive wealth of information, but by its ability to systematically test ideas and draw new conclusions. Good science is not afraid to admit its own faults, not afraid to admit that it was incorrect.

A curious thing that happens if you get all the sciences, lay them out, and connect each other, is that some seem to be “more connected” than others. Some subjects are perceived as being pre-requisites to others, or at least more fundamental than others. For instance, one might say that you can’t have physics without math, no math without logic, no law without sociology and no sociology without biology. Some sciences “lead” to more disciplines than others. Some are more “central” than others. And no matter how it is wrong, chemistry always seems to come out on top. The “central science”, as it is sometimes called.

That’s kind of interesting! Math is the most fundamental of them all, but seems to “lead” only to physics. Physics “leads” to chemistry, and then there is a sudden explosion of many more subjects that chemistry “leads” to.
Why is it that chemistry occupies such a crucial role in all of science as we presently understand it? It seems to be that it is the fulcrum of all that we know. Of course, it deals with the natural world on a material level, and that’s very practical for industry and commerce and sanitation and civilization in general … but still, why chemistry? Physics and biology can never get along, so goes the common joke among students, but when chemistry is introduced the entire situation is suddenly workable. It is the floodgate that unlocks an overwhelming variety of other disciplines while still maintaining firm roots in the physics and mathematics that came before it.

Of course, could things have occurred any differently given our technological and societal progress? One might say that the realization of chemistry is completely inevitable. It was not made into a systematic, rigorous discipline until relatively recently, but the idea of it has been around for quite literally forever. It is impossible to look up towards celestial bodies for generations upon generations and not be curious about their behaviour, hence the development of physics and astronomy. It is impossible to observe the natural world which covers every aspect of our existence, and not question how living things function. Hence, biology. Likewise, it is not possible to make any inquiry into the material world without invoking the basic chemical principles which we know today.

And what about the other subjects? Physics, biology, and all the rest? Concepts, explanations resembling evolution and Newton’s laws of motion have appeared on many occasions throughout history. Similar to how Darwin was not the first to suggest that inherited change could account for all the biodiversity of earth, Newton was not the first to propose a relationship between an object’s mass, force, and acceleration. But unlike many of his predecessors, Newton had a tremendous gift for mathematics and was able to express his thoughts and conclusions more precisely using said math. Darwin’s ideas, meanwhile, had difficulties of its own due to circumstance and sometimes incomplete evidence. Yet nevertheless, he was and still is highly regarded for having put together his theory while consulting the numerous works of others who came before him (that in addition to an overwhelming quantity of his own observations). Buffon, Cuvier, Malthus, Lamarck, Lyell … each contributed a fragment of the whole. But they couldn’t have possibly put their ideas together; it would have been chronologically impossible. It took Darwin, plus Darwin’s insight and boldness, to do what they couldn’t.

Doesn’t it seem to be the case that this is how science moves ahead? Even as we move forward and more time is spent studying a narrower and narrower subject area, it always relates back to the other fields in a manner stronger than before. As disjointed information is moulded together into coherent hypotheses and theories, we find increasingly creative ways to connect the dots and form relationships where none were thought to exist before. Referring back: Newton’s laws “unified” the terrestrial and the celestial worlds, by demonstrating that they operated using the same laws of physics. Darwin “unified” man with the remainder of the natural world in sense, by arguing that all living entities were related and none completely separate from the rest. Likewise, we have since then also succeeded in doing the same with electricity and magnetism, and space and time.

In high school, I don’t think we see this quite as often. The three sciences are sufficiently compartmentalized to be regarded as distinct and almost unrelated (if you really wanted to).

Apparently, it seems to be the case that chemistry is considered among the “easier” science courses offered in the high school curriculum, on account of the fact that the mathematics involved seldom extends beyond the multiplication of fractions (particularly in grade eleven chemistry). But it is evident that like any subject, chemistry has the potential to become amazingly intricate and complex. Biology, meanwhile, is denounced as a convoluted memory game. Physics therefore receives the least criticism of all. At the very least, it certainly seems to be the most “counter-intuitive” and conceptually difficult subject to grasp.

But of course, it has to be the case that everything is indeed deeply connected. Yet what is it about these “central sciences” that make them so pivotal? Why are they more “connected” in this web/hierarchy of disciplines? Is it merely because of the way these fields have been developed historically? Or is there something fundamentally different about them, and what they study? Why can’t math or physics make the direct jump to biology? Why do we need chemistry in the middle? Hypothetically, could we have made a direct jump from physics to ethics instead, and then worked backwards from ethics to sociology, from sociology to psychology … etc. … until chemistry was finally reached? Or was that something never possible?

I wonder.

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