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2.2: What Is Science?

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  • Ouch!

    This individual in Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\) is getting a flu vaccine. You probably know that getting a vaccine can hurt, but it's usually worth it. A vaccine contains dead or altered forms of "germs" that normally cause a disease, such as flu or measles. The germs in vaccines have been inactivated or weakened so they can no longer cause illness, but they are still "noticed" by the immune system. They stimulate the immune system to produce chemicals that can kill the actual germs if they enter the body, thus preventing future disease. How was such an ingenious way to prevent disease discovered? The short answer is more than two centuries of science.

    getting a shot
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Getting an annual flu shot

    Science as Process

    You may think of science as a large and detailed body of knowledge, but science is actually more of a process than a set of facts. The real focus of science is the accumulation and revision of scientific knowledge. Science is a special way of gaining knowledge that relies on evidence and logic. Evidence is used to continuously test ideas. Through time, with repeated evidence gathering and testing, scientific knowledge advances.

    We've been accumulating knowledge of vaccines for more than two centuries. The discovery of the first vaccine, as well as the process of vaccination, dates back to 1796. An English doctor named Edward Jenner observed that people who became infected with cowpox did not get sick from smallpox, a similar but much more virulent disease (Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\)). Jenner decided to transmit cowpox to a young child to see if it would protect them from smallpox. He gave the child cowpox by scratching liquid from cowpox sores into the child's skin. Then, six weeks later, he scratched liquid from smallpox sores into the child's skin. As Jenner predicted, the child did not get sick from smallpox. Jenner had discovered the first vaccine, although additional testing was needed to show that it really was effective.

    Child with Smallpox in Bangladesh
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): A young child covered with skin lesions from smallpox. Until it was eradicated, this highly contagious infection caused many deaths, and those that survived were often severely scarred for life.

    Almost a century passed before the next vaccine was discovered, a vaccine for cholera in 1879. Around the same time, French chemist Louis Pasteur found convincing evidence that many human diseases are caused by germs. This earned Pasteur the title of "father of germ theory." Since Pasteur's time, vaccines have been discovered for scores of additional diseases caused by "germs," and scientists are currently researching vaccines for many others.

    Benefits of Science

    Medical advances such as the discovery of vaccines are one of the most important benefits of science, but science and scientific knowledge are also crucial for most other human endeavors. Science is needed to design safe cars, predict storms, control global warming, develop new technologies of many kinds, help couples have children, and put humans on the moon! Clearly, the diversity of applications of scientific knowledge is vast!

    Review

    1. Explain why science is more accurately considered a process than a body of knowledge.
    2. State three specific examples of human endeavors that are based on scientific knowledge.
    3. Jenner used a young boy as a research subject in his smallpox vaccine research. Today, scientists must follow strict guidelines when using human subjects in their research. What unique concerns do you think might arise when human beings are used as research subjects?
    4. What gave Jenner the idea to develop a vaccine for smallpox?
    5. Why do you think almost a century passed between the development of the first vaccine (for smallpox) and the development of the next vaccine (for cholera)?
    6. How does science influence your daily life?

    Explore More

    Watch this eye-opening TED talk to learn why truly innovative science demands a leap into the unknown. The inspiring speaker explains how improvisational, or improv, theater helped them find joy instead of fear in the unknown and how to use creativity in the scientific process.

    Check out this video to learn more about the smallpox vaccine:

    Attributions

    1. Nurse administers a vaccine by Rhoda Baer for National Cancer Institute, public domain via Wikimedia Commons
    2. Child with smallpox by CDC/James Hicks, public domain via Wikimedia Commons
    3. Text adapted from Human Biology by CK-12 licensed CC BY-NC 3.0