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Science: What’s in a Name?

Welcome to physics, chemistry, or biology class, young scientist. Here you sit, excited to unravel the mysteries of the universe — to learn how the interplay of unseen forces can impress themselves upon matter at a distance, how a confusion of billions upon billions of molecules conspires to produce properties you can see and touch, or how those molecules combined and recombined over millennia to ultimately give rise to the complexity known as life. You’re ready to think deeply and creatively about hard questions and to wonder at the beauty of their answers. Good for you.

But what are you actually doing in class right now? Likely talking about significant figures. Or unit conversions. Or memorizing names of molecules or simple equations. What a letdown. This doesn’t at all seem like what you signed up for, but please do give it some time! What you’re learning now is actually important. In order to start thinking clearly about science, you need to start thinking like a scientist.

So let’s start with the word “scientist.” Fun fact: that word didn’t exist until 1833 — really not very long ago at all. Before that, scientists were often called natural philosophers. Fancy, right? The word “science,” however, is much, much older and is related to Latin word roots meaning “to know,” which themselves came from even older words meaning “to cut or divide or separate.” That’s what the scientists of 1833 were doing and what many scientists still do: they separate what we know from what we don’t. They classify and compartmentalize. They organize knowledge. They give things names. And that’s exactly where you’re starting in science class right now: you’re learning the names of things.

And it’s important that you learn those names and those words. For scientists, words have extremely precise meanings that are agreed upon and accepted. Specific meanings are necessary to communicate specific ideas and information, and that gives science its power. For example, in a non-scientific context, the word “work” might mean four different things to four different people: it could mean “job” or “operate” or “product” or “effort.” Those multiple meanings give other aspects of language power — and a good writer might harness a word’s myriad meanings to convey something multilayered and nuanced. But that doesn’t work for a scientist. To a scientist, work is “the transfer of energy by application of a force over a distance.” Period.

So hang in there, budding scientist. You’re likely up to your eyeballs in vocabulary and categories and names right now, but it’s crucial for you to internalize those, because you can’t think about relationships or causes or effects or other cool stuff until you first understand what’s what. So do the “work”: learn the basics and build yourself a good foundation for the rest of the year.

In Biology

You might be wondering right now if you’re in chemistry or biology. You’re talking about classes of different biological molecules and their structures and properties, much of which you don’t have lots of context for because you haven’t taken chemistry yet. That’s not your fault. (It’s your school’s fault for having you take biology before chemistry, but that’s a rant for another day!) For now, focus on learning these crazy structures. How proteins are similar to carbohydrates and DNA and how they’re different, how there are a bunch of different types of lipids, how the chemistry of that simple little water molecule drives just about everything! The complicated chemical structures of these molecules may be intimidating, but it’s important to learn them since, in biology, structure largely determines function and you’ll want to be prepared to understand how all these crazy molecules function together in harmony.

In Chemistry

Units. Significant Figures. Yawn. I know; I get it. But chemistry is a very quantitative science, and you need to understand how to measure and name quantities. Scientists say exactly what they mean, so there’s a difference between 10, 10.0 and 10.00. It matters. And so do units. How much iron is that? It might be 300 cm3 or 2.4 kg or 5.2 lbs — but you need to understand how they’re all the same thing. Knowing how to convert back and forth between these units is essential, and the formalism you’ll learn to use in these problems (often called the factor-label method) might seem like overkill now, but it’ll be a lifesaver when you’re soon using it to convert between moles and atoms and joules and other harder-to-visualize quantities.

In Physics

You don’t run into many biology or chemistry terms in your day-to-day life, but physics terms are all over the place. Distance. Speed. Velocity. Work. Energy. It’ll be important to learn exactly what those words mean to a physicist and how they’re different from each other. Your thesaurus may tell you that speed and velocity are synonyms, but your physics teacher would strenuously disagree! You might also be learning about the Scientific Method and run into words like independent variable, dependent variable, precision, and accuracy. Part of science is communicating what you observe and those words are indispensable to that task.

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