Dear Dr. Universe: I was wondering, how did science get its name? Who thought of it? Does it mean something special? -Jada, 10

Dear Jada,

If you were to travel around the world, the word “science” might look or sound very different. In Spanish, it’s ciencia. In Japanese, 理科. In German, wissenschaft! And in French…well, it’s also science. But with an accent. 

My friend Michael Goldsby is a philosopher of science at Washington State University. He said the English word “science” comes from the Latin, scientia, which means knowledge.

In medieval times, the pursuit of knowledge included things like grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. Of course, the meaning of the word “science” has changed over time.  

“We don’t know exactly who coined that term first,” Goldsby said. “Although, we do know that it was philosopher William Whewell who first coined the term ‘scientist.’ Prior to that, scientists were called ‘natural philosophers’.”

Whewell coined the term in 1833, said my friend Debbie Lee. She’s a researcher and professor of English at WSU who wrote a book on the history of science. She told me about one of her favorite examples of the way science was approached a long time ago. It was in the form of a really long poem written by a natural historian named Erasmus Darwin. The poem filled up a whole book.

This poetry was full of observations about the lives of plants. But it didn’t necessarily involve new questions or testing out ideas. Just a couple generations later, Erasmus’ grandson Charles started doing just this. His curiosity about different birds on the Galapagos Islands led him to a question that could actually be tested.

He noticed that different birds had different beak shapes, depending on what they ate to survive. The observations and questions led to discoveries about how animals adapt to their environment and evolve over time.

Lee said in the 18th and 19th centuries a lot of people in Europe were going out to other parts of the world to explore.

“They came up with these huge systems of cataloging and naming the world,” she said. “Science really continued to grow out of that pursuit.”

Goldsby said it was around this time the word “science” really started to become attached to the way we use it today. While people had ways of gaining new knowledge through exploring history or philosophy, science became more about a method of learning and knowing.

As you may know, that is what we call the scientific method, Goldsby explains.

“It tends to rely on observing the world and testing things out to figure out what claims we ought to believe,” he said.

Some of my friends at Spokane Public Schools put together a helpful video about the scientific method. Maybe you could even use it to help guide your next science fair project.

You know, we explore all kinds of science questions together, but you bring up a good one with your third question. What does science mean to you? Tell me about it between now and Nov. 30 at Dr.Universe@wsu.edu for a chance to win your very own explorer’s field guide.  

Sincerely,
Dr. Universe