On the relativity of science and nature

This week, Science magazine published a piece listing the top 50 scientist ‘stars’ on Twitter. The list contained only 6 biologists and not a single ecologist. Although the authors acknowledge that their method of selection was not rigorous, this perpetuates a common misconception that ‘nature’ has nothing to do with ‘science’. Just like recent comments from our Minister for Industry (for international readers, we don’t have a Minister for Science), which implied that industry and technology are more relevant to our society than science.

So, are science, industry and technology the same thing? No.

Science is about generating and sharing knowledge. It is also about nature. Every dictionary definition of science includes some variation of the phrase ‘understanding the structure and behaviour of the natural and physical world.’ That means volcanoes, weather, stars and planets, bees pollinating crops, gravity, internal organs, the parts of your ear that help you listen, climate change and everything in between. The term ‘physical world’ refers to the geological part of nature – soil, rocks, mountains, river beds, coastlines etc – not buildings and machines. The collective knowledge we have on all of these things, and the practice of adding to this knowledge through research and experiments, is Science.

Industry is an economic activity, involving the processing of raw materials, which come directly from the natural world (e.g. wood) or have been created through scientific knowledge (e.g. nylon), to manufacture into goods for sale or use. Similarly, Technology involves applying scientific knowledge for practical purposes, to create machinery and devices that contribute to industry or can be sold for public use.

All of these elements are important to society, but science is the foundation stone – advancements in industry and technology cannot happen without the practice of science. Industrial and technological knowledge is relevant and comprehensible only to those who work in that specific industry. How many people know how to manufacture aeroplane engines, make quality wine, or build drones, outside of those industries? In contrast, scientific knowledge has education and application potential far beyond the lab or environment it was gathered in. If we turn science into another finite ‘industry’, it becomes even more inaccessible to those beyond the boundaries – doesn’t that actually limit its relevance to society?

Similarly, the myth that science and industry are one and the same completely ignores the fundamental role that ecological knowledge plays in science. The historical origins of science were in the simple desire to comprehend the natural world around us and how we, as humans, fit into the bigger picture. The earliest historical figures we call scientists, like Hippocrates, Aristotle and Anaximander, never called themselves that. They simply wanted to understand the natural world, because they recognised that natural laws and processes constantly affected human beings and how they lived. This knowledge is just as important today as it was hundreds of years ago.

Modern science is multi-faceted, but all of it is in some way linked to principles or components of the natural world. It’s easy to overlook nature, as it can seem like we’ve learned all we need to. We’ve figured out gravity, electricity, mechanical motion, the biology of our bodies, aerodynamics and how genes work. We know how to grow plants and animals for food, treat many medical problems, and predict most weather events.

Industry and technology help us succeed at all these things and survive in the face of many threats and dangers. But nature is constantly changing. No plant, animal (including ourselves), building, device, or infrastructure is isolated from surrounding environmental influences. Industry and technology are not immune to natural laws, and the science that feeds those technologies and industries cannot be conducted without understanding all the constant variability in relevant natural processes.

So science is different to industry and technology, and that’s a good thing. They are complementary pursuits, not replacements for one another. Through science, we understand the natural processes constantly occurring around us, how they affect us, and how we affect them. Isn’t collecting this knowledge the most relevant strategy for any society?

Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better

– Albert Einstein


6 thoughts on “On the relativity of science and nature

  1. Brianne Du Clos (@brianneduclos) September 21, 2014 / 2:41 AM

    I was listening to a conversation about science and math on the bus the other day. Three people were discussing the difference between math, applied science, and life science. Their definition of life science was purely biomedical. Ecology didn’t come up once! I wanted to turn around and get involved, but I was content to listen to other’s perspectives on what science is. I wish more people appreciated more natural science!


    • manuelinor September 21, 2014 / 10:37 AM

      I’ve been in conversations like that too.. I think that myth is one of the main factors behind the public not accepting or appreciating the significance of environmental issues – this disconnect between Nature, which is often just seen as something ‘nice’ to look at every now and then, and ‘the real world’ (i.e. us humans and all our totally important non-naturey work), which is seen as separate…how ironic.
      And then on the other side of the coin, there are the ecologists who think ecology is totally based on maths and computer modelling, and we don’t need to be in nature at all to do science! 🙂


  2. Theresa Groth September 23, 2014 / 9:46 AM

    It’s funny (or sad) how quickly we are able to ‘forget’ the bigger picture. I’m reminded of a passage in ‘A Sand County Almanac’ by Aldo Leopold where he compared himself (out before sunrise in the field observing the interworkings of an ecosystem) to that of someone who spends their entire working life working under fluorescent lights in a lab. Sometimes are views get narrowed, and it’s always helpful to that that nudge to say, ‘look what you’re forgetting.’


    • manuelinor September 23, 2014 / 11:03 AM

      Thank you Theresa, I agree. I guess it is so easy to forget because our ‘world’ has become interiors and technology, instead of exteriors and ‘life’ in the real sense that it once was (as I reply to you on a computer!) 🙂 So yes, it’s more and more important to force that interaction with Nature and challenge our ideas – technology is predictable, so easily makes us complacent, while nature isn’t.


      • Kaina Sahara September 13, 2016 / 4:36 PM

        we need more people to run the environmental science class at school. May I ask, why do people think that it is lame?


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