Letter To The Editor: Something More On ‘What Is Science’

By Dr. T. Douglas Reilly
Los Alamos

I wish to add something to Don Neeper’s June 25 Op-ed in the Post, What is Science? I believe what local politicians mean when they say COVID virus will be managed “according to science”, is they will try to follow the advice of scientists.

What is the meaning of the word SCIENCE? It comes from the Latin word SCIRE (pronounced shear-ay) that has two meanings; to know and to divide (like shear). That is to say, the basic sense in which we use science is meaning KNOWLEDGE.

Experimental science leads to data, facts if you will; theoretical science attempts to place these data in a framework that unites them into a formal scheme. Probably the best example is Newton’s Three Laws of Mechanics. These extremely simple statements, with the formula F = ma, provide a theory that explains the force of gravity, the motions of the planets and stars, the ocean tides, and, yes, why an apple falls.

I must add a comment on the word PHYSICS. Physics is the Greek word for NATURE; even into the early years of the 20th century physicists were called Natural Philosophers; I’d like to go back to this name. The original European university system only recognized four doctorate fields, Medicine, Legal Letters (Law), Theology, and Philosophy.

Even today, most Ph.D. degrees do not mention the field of study the student followed. Today, of course, we have bio-physics, medical-physics, bio-chemical-physics, and many more. I’ve even heard of fields with four qualifiers.

To me, this is where the second meaning of SHIRE comes in, namely to divide. As the different scientific fields multiplied, they divided scientists into something like the biblical Tower of Babel; thus, making it more difficult for the sharing of ideas. We talk a lot about interdisciplinary education and research; yes, there’s some, but there’s a great deal of “reinventing the wheel”.