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Name: Sarah
Status: student
Grade: 9-12
Location: MA
Country: N/A
Date: July 2006

What distinguishes the differences between the different fields of sciences?


This question is becoming increasingly more difficult to answer. In general and from the Webster Dictionary:

Life Sciences (for example, Biology)--the field of study addressing living systems

Chemistry--the field of study that deals with the composition, structure, and properties of substances and with the transformations that they undergo

Physics--a science that deals with matter and energy and their interactions

In reality, these fields are now frequently far from distinct. For example, I am a physical, materials chemist. What does this mean? Yes, I am a chemist and I look at the way my materials are synthesized and put together (like in the definition of chemistry), but then I characterize materials when they are under high pressure by looking at the diffraction of X-rays off of their crystal structure (matter and energy--this sound much more like physics, doesn't it?!) And the goal of all of this is to design, predict and study the mechanical properties of the materials (this sounds like Materials Science and Engineering). Science is complex. I have a colleague who is a physical chemist who studies the packing of DNA---is this chemistry or biology? I have a colleague who studies the nanoscale vault structure in a virus; he controls the environment to take them apart, put them back together, and put other things inside the vaults that nature never intended to be there (like polymers....a stepping stone to thinking about using these structures for drug delivery). He is a physical chemist...not even a biochemist!

I think it is an incredibly forward-thinking trend in science to blur the traditional boundaries of the fields. No longer does a chemist think about reactions only. No longer does a geologist think only about volcanoes or rocks....there are geophysicists and geochemists, the same way there are physical chemists and biochemists. The original scientists did not think of themselves as physicists or chemists, they called themselves naturalists. They looked at the world around them and tried to explain it as best they could. This is close to what we do today. We ask a question about something in the world, and we try to use all the available techniques we know, or know someone who knows, to try to answer our question. And, if this gets us to cross the old-school boundaries between the fields, it is going to be much better for science in the long run, because we get a much more complete answer to the problem we are addressing.

Hope this helps.

Michelle Weinberger

What an excellent question Sarah. In a broad sense, all the sciences are one. They are a way of looking at the world in a specific, logical, questioning way. Beyond that, the sciences are broadly divided into physical (like astronomy, geology, meteorology, etc) and biological, which relates to life. But even there the differences fade. There is astrobiology, for example!

The funny thing is that Nature does not really subdivide and classify; we do that!

David Levy

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