THE SCIENTIFIC ENTERPRISE is the union of science, mathematics, and technology that forms the scientific endeavor and that makes it so successful. Although each of these human enterprises has a character and history of its own, each is dependent on and reinforces the others.
Over the course of human history, people have developed many interconnected and validated ideas about the physical, biological, psychological, and social worlds. Those ideas have enabled successive generations to achieve an increasingly comprehensive and reliable understanding of the human species and its environment. The means used to develop these ideas are particular ways of observing, thinking, experimenting, and validating. These ways represent a fundamental aspect of the nature of science and reflect how science tends to differ from other modes of knowing.
Humans have never lost interest in trying to find out how the universe is put together, how it works, and where they fit in the cosmic scheme of things. The development of our understanding of the architecture of the universe is surely not complete, but we have made great progress. Given a universe that is made up of distances too vast to reach and of particles too small to see and too numerous to count, it is a tribute to human intelligence that we have made as much progress as we have in accounting for how things fit together. All humans should participate in the pleasure of coming to know their universe better.
People have long been curious about living things—how many different species there are, what they are like, where they live, how they relate to each other, and how they behave. Scientists seek to answer these questions and many more about the organisms that inhabit the earth. In particular, they try to develop the concepts, principles, and theories that enable people to understand the living environment better.
Living organisms are made of the same components as all other matter, involve the same kind of transformations of energy, and move using the same basic kinds of forces. . . . But living organisms also have characteristics that can be understood best through the application of other principles.
Mathematics is essentially a process of thinking that involves building and applying abstract, logically connected networks of ideas. These ideas often arise from the need to solve problems in science, technology, and everyday life—problems ranging from how to model certain aspects of a complex scientific problem to how to balance a checkbook.
Mathematics relies on both logic and creativity, and it is pursued both for a variety of practical purposes and for its intrinsic interest. For some people, and not only professional mathematicians, the essence of mathematics lies in its beauty and its intellectual challenge. For others, including many scientists and engineers, the chief value of mathematics is how it applies to their own work. Because mathematics plays such a central role in modern culture, some basic understanding of the nature of mathematics is requisite for scientific literacy. To achieve this, students need to perceive mathematics as part of the scientific endeavor, comprehend the nature of mathematical thinking, and become familiar with key mathematical ideas and skills.
As long as there have been people, there has been technology. Indeed, the techniques of shaping tools are taken as the chief evidence of the beginning of human culture. On the whole, technology has been a powerful force in the development of civilization, all the more so as its link with science has been forged. Technology—like language, ritual, values, commerce, and the arts—is an intrinsic part of a cultural system and it both shapes and reflects the system’s values. In today’s world, technology is a complex social enterprise that includes not only research, design, and crafts but also finance, manufacturing, management, labor, marketing, and maintenance.
In the broadest sense, technology extends our abilities to change the world: to cut, shape, or put together materials; to move things from one place to another; to reach farther with our hands, voices, and senses. We use technology to try to change the world to suit us better. The changes may relate to survival needs such as food, shelter, or defense, or they may relate to human aspirations such as knowledge, art, or control. But the results of changing the world are often complicated and unpredictable. They can include unexpected benefits, unexpected costs, and unexpected risks—any of which may fall on different social groups at different times. Anticipating the effects of technology is therefore as important as advancing its capabilities.
History of the Scientific Enterprise
There are two principal reasons for including some knowledge of history among the recommendations. One reason is that generalizations about how the scientific enterprise operates would be empty without concrete examples. Consider, for example, the proposition that new ideas are limited by the context in which they are conceived; are often rejected by the scientific establishment; sometimes spring from unexpected findings; and usually grow slowly, through contributions from many different investigators. Without historical examples, these generalizations would be no more than slogans, however well they might be remembered. For this purpose, any number of episodes might have been selected.
A second reason is that some episodes in the history of the scientific endeavor are of surpassing significance to our cultural heritage. Such episodes certainly include Galileo’s role in changing our perception of our place in the universe; Newton’s demonstration that the same laws apply to motion in the heavens and on earth; Darwin’s long observations of the variety and relatedness of life forms that led to his postulating a mechanism for how they came about; Lyell’s careful documentation of the unbelievable age of the earth; and Pasteur’s identification of infectious disease with tiny organisms that could be seen only with a microscope. These stories stand among the milestones of the development of all thought in Western civilization.
All human cultures have included study of nature—the movement of heavenly bodies, the behavior of animals, the properties of materials, the medicinal properties of plants. The recommendations in this chapter focus on the development of science, mathematics, and technology in Western culture, but not on how that development drew on ideas from earlier Egyptian, Chinese, Greek, and Arabic cultures. The sciences accounted for in this report are largely part of a tradition of thought that happened to develop in Europe during the last 500 years—a tradition to which people from all cultures contribute today.
Common Themes within the Scientific Enterprise
Some important themes pervade science, mathematics, and technology and appear over and over again, whether we are looking at an ancient civilization, the human body, or a comet. They are ideas that transcend disciplinary boundaries and prove fruitful in explanation, in theory, in observation, and in design, [and include] systems, models, constancy and change, and scale.
SCIENCE AND HUMANITY are of a piece: science informs us of our nature and behavior, and we, in turn, create and carry out science. What we do with our increasing scientific knowledge—including our increasing knowledge of how to create knowledge and of how to apply knowledge—will increasingly shape the quality of life on Earth and determine our planet’s fate.
The Human Species
As similar as we humans are in many ways to other species, we are unique among the earth’s life forms in our ability to use language and thought. Having evolved a large and complex brain, our species has a facility to think, imagine, create, and learn from experience that far exceeds that of any other species. We have used this ability to create technologies and literary and artistic works on a vast scale, and to develop a scientific understanding of ourselves and the world.
We are also unique in our profound curiosity about ourselves: How are we put together physically? How were we formed? How do we relate biologically to other life forms and to our ancestors? How are we as individuals like or unlike other humans? How can we stay healthy? Much of the scientific endeavor focuses on such questions.
As a species, we are social beings who live out our lives in the company of other humans. We organize ourselves into various kinds of social groupings, such as nomadic bands, villages, cities, and countries, in which we work, trade, play, reproduce, and interact in many other ways. Unlike other species, we combine socialization with deliberate changes in social behavior and organization over time. Consequently, the patterns of human society differ from place to place and era to era and across cultures, making the social world a very complex and dynamic environment.
Insight into human behavior comes from many sources. The views presented here are based principally on scientific investigation, but it should also be recognized that literature, drama, history, philosophy, and other nonscientific disciplines contribute significantly to our understanding of ourselves. Social scientists study human behavior from a variety of cultural, political, economic, and psychological perspectives, using both qualitative and quantitative approaches. They look for consistent patterns of individual and social behavior and for scientific explanations of those patterns. In some cases, such patterns may seem obvious once they are pointed out, although they may not have been part of how most people consciously thought about the world. In other cases, the patterns—as revealed by scientific investigation—may show people that their long-held beliefs about certain aspects of human behavior are incorrect.
The Designed World
The world we live in has been shaped in many important ways by human action. We have created technological options to prevent, eliminate, or lessen threats to life and the environment and to fulfill social needs. We have dammed rivers and cleared forests, made new materials and machines, covered vast areas with cities and highways, and decided—sometimes willy-nilly—the fate of many other living things.
In a sense, then, many parts of our world are designed—shaped and controlled, largely through the use of technology—in light of what we take our interests to be. We have brought the earth to a point where our future well-being will depend heavily on how we develop and use and restrict technology. In turn, that will depend heavily on how well we understand the workings of technology and the social, cultural, economic, and ecological systems within which we live.