Structure of Science 4/7/20

Science by Richard Bleil

Humans tend to compartmentalize things. We can only keep track of so many things. I’ve heard it said that an expert is someone who learns more and more about less and less until they know absolutely everything there is to know about nothing at all.

Our intellect, whether we want to admit it or not, is limited. Our choice is to understand something in great depth, or many things with little depth. Most of us do some kind of combination. I know chemistry. I’m very good at chemistry, and have a bit of depth in thermodynamics, but I’m more of a generalist. While I have some depth in chemistry (although not the depth of, say, a specialist in biochemistry or organometallic chemistry), I also have a pretty broad knowledge of other topics in which I am not experts.

In the sciences, we further categorize into broad stroke disciplines so in our minds we can keep things straight, like organized filing cabinets as if anybody has those anymore. But nature doesn’t work like that. She’s far more intelligent than we tiny humans could ever be. “Out there”, the sciences blend and work together in perfect harmony to keep things going and growing. And yet, as we think of the “disciplines” of science, we often don’t think of their interconnectedness. Every science is built on the same basic disciplines. Some of my colleagues might disagree with the analogy which I am about to introduce, but when I think of science, I picture a tree, ancient and massive, but with each part connected to the rest.

The soil would be mathematics. Math is like a beautiful waltz, with the rhythms of the music rising and falling like a mathematical function dancing on a graph. The reason math is the chosen language of science is a question that can probably only be answered by God, but if we were to meet aliens from another galaxy I can pretty much guarantee that while the terminology of thermodynamics will be different, but the mathematical equations, while they may look different, will be exactly the same. Regardless of the language native to any of us, mathematical laws are the same.

The roots of the proverbial tree are firmly planted in mathematics, representing physics. Physics is the most mathematically based of all the broad stroke sciences. As a gross generalization (as all of these descriptions will be), physics is the study of energy, and everything relies on energy. Attraction, repulsion, collisions, interactions are all applications of kinetic and potential energy, fancy ways of saying motion and stored energy respectively.

The trunk of the tree is chemistry. Chemistry is the study of matter, which definition is anything that has mass and occupies a volume. Practically, matter is everything that we can see, eat, smell, feel, touch, manipulate, build, destroy; aside from various forms of energy, it’s pretty much everything. But chemistry, relies on physics, which relies on mathematics. The forces that hold subatomic particles together to form atoms, and that hold atoms together to form molecules, and that causes these molecules to change connectivity in reactions is all based on energy.

As a side note, I’m actually a physical chemist. My expertise walks the fine line between chemistry and physics, which is probably why I come across as a “know-it-all”. I’m fascinated by the energy of matter and received my doctorate by writing mathematical equations off these interactions. This might also betray a bias, since I’m arguing that mathematics, physics and chemistry is the root of everything else.

Every other scientific discipline, then, would be represented by the branches that come off of the tree. Every other scientific discipline is basically an application of matter and energy. Biology, for example, is the study of living things, like you and I, but we are made of matter. We have mass and occupy a volume, so our bodies are applied chemistry. As I write this, I am eating cheese because I need the energy from the cheese to live. This is physics. The breakdown of the cheese into energy follows the mathematical pathway of thermodynamics.

The purpose is certainly not to demean any of the scientific disciplines. A geologist studies matter as it applies to earth (or planetary) processes and structures, so arguably, it’s applied chemistry and physics. But I can guarantee you that a geologist knows more about their discipline than I do. Spending significant time learning and thinking about this particular application gives geologists (as my example here) a depth of knowledge that I couldn’t achieve without similar dedication to the discipline. I had the honor of co-teaching a physical science course with a good friend of mine who is a geologist. It was a great lesson for me; anything he covered I could understand from a purely chemical or physical perspective, but the reality is that he put things together that I would have never thought of. Understanding is one thing, but to figure things out is another.

Every discipline of science is important, and they are all just incredibly fascinating. Each of them have their “wow” factor, highlighted in a myriad of informative/entertaining outlets, but they all break down to mathematics, physics and chemistry.

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