What Science Is and How It Works

What Science Is and How It Works

What Science Is and How It Works

What Science Is and How It Works


How does a scientist go about solving problems? How do scientific discoveries happen? Why are cold fusion and parapsychology different from mainstream science? What is a scientific worldview? In this lively and wide-ranging book, Gregory Derry talks about these and other questions as he introduces the reader to the process of scientific thinking. From the discovery of X rays and semiconductors to the argument for continental drift to the invention of the smallpox vaccine, scientific work has proceeded through honest observation, critical reasoning, and sometimes just plain luck. Derry starts out with historical examples, leading readers through the events, experiments, blind alleys, and thoughts of scientists in the midst of discovery and invention. Readers at all levels will come away with an enriched appreciation of how science operates and how it connects with our daily lives.An especially valuable feature of this book is the actual demonstration of scientific reasoning. Derry shows how scientists use a small number of powerful yet simple methods--symmetry, scaling, linearity, and feedback, for example--to construct realistic models that describe a number of diverse real-life problems, such as drug uptake in the body, the inner workings of atoms, and the laws of heredity.Science involves a particular way of thinking about the world, and Derry shows the reader that a scientific viewpoint can benefit most personal philosophies and fields of study. With an eye to both the power and limits of science, he explores the relationships between science and topics such as religion, ethics, and philosophy. By tackling the subject of science from all angles, including the nuts and bolts of the trade as well as its place in the overall scheme of life, the book provides a perfect place to start thinking like a scientist.


Science, like many other topics, is much more interesting if it makes sense to you. I wrote this book because science is extraordinarily interesting to me, and I want to share that interest with other people. My goal for the book is to convey the foundations of my own understanding of science, which I have acquired over an extended period of time. Scholars argue over whether science is a body of knowledge, a collection of techniques, a social and intellectual process, a way of knowing, a strictly defined method, and so forth. These arguments are not very interesting to me, since I accept all of these elements as valid partial visions of science. In one guise or another, they all appear somewhere in the book. My other motivation for writing the book is to show that science, as well as being interesting, is also important. A significant part of our culture, our economy, and our environment are entangled with science in profound ways. To comprehend the world we live in without some grasp of science is difficult. Crucial issues are at stake, and these issues require an understanding of science in order to approach them intelligently.

The audience for this book is anybody with some curiosity about the issues I explore. No particular background is assumed. In writing, I especially had in mind a reader who enjoys ideas but hasn't studied the sciences in any depth. People who have a scientific background will also find the book of interest, but I primarily had in mind people who are not experts. In fact, my underlying assumption is that you don't need any particular expertise to have a genuine understanding of what science is and how science works.

In order to keep the scope of the book manageable, I am using the word “science” to mean natural science. (This is merely a convenient convention, not intended to reflect any opinion about the relative worth of the disciplines I'm not including.) The social sciences, mathematics, and engineering are sometimes discussed briefly, but the main focus of the book is on chemistry, biology, physics, and the earth sciences. I have tried to avoid any prejudice in favor of a particular discipline. I have also tried to avoid favoring either the laboratory sciences or the historical/observational sciences. My own background is in physics, and that may have colored my treatment and choice of topics. Nevertheless, I have tried to maintain a broad transdisciplinary flavor.

A number of books already try to explain science to the general public. I would like to articulate why I have written another one and why what I have tried to accomplish is different. My overarching goal is to give the reader more than just a description of how other people (scientists) think . . .

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