K. Fuller  99

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Science Vocabulary


Cataloging is a very important process and skill in science.  On entering a field of investigation new to science, the first order of business is to accumulate by observation, as much data on objects and events included in the field as feasible.  Next comes cataloging, the arranging the recorded data in a way that permits easy access to any record (data base), and expansion to include new data as they become available.  The cataloging system generally leads to, and is revised by the development of a taxonomy (classification system) for the field.


Classification is an extremely important skill, and process in science.  After initial data of a field have been accumulated by observation, and cataloged , it is time to start classifying.  Both the process and product of classification are called taxonomy.  In taxonomy, each item of interest is compared to each of the others.  Both similarities and differences are noted.  Then the items are separated into large groups, in each of which the members are like each other in what are perceived to be the most significant characteristics.  Each of these large groups is then separated into smaller groups based on characteristics of lesser significance.  The process continues until each group consists of members which are essentially the "same kind" (a species).  Hopefully the classification will show some natural relationships among its members.


To comprehend is to place recently acquired facts and ideas into a logically coherent structure.  That is, to develop them into a concept, including cause and effect relations.  This conceptual structure needs to be not only internally consistent, but should have pegs and notches for expansion, by plugging in concepts to be met later, as well as plugging into the overall framework of previous learning.  Sort of like assembling a jigsaw puzzle .  To comprehend a concept is to make it usable for explaining phenomena.  If I can't restate a concept in different words and with different examples, I do not yet fully comprehend the concept.


A concept is a coherent idea, a big idea, a unified structure of understanding.  A number of facts (factoids when taken individually) connected together by their interrelationships form a concept.  Smaller concepts are in turn related to each other to construct ever larger concepts.  Ideally we end with a conceptual structure encompassing all knowledge.  In reality we always have gaps, discontinuities, and inconsistencies.

example: The concept "photosynthesis" includes smaller concepts, such as light energy, destruction of water, chemical energy, the law of conservation of matter, and many more.  All connected by cause and effect relationships.


Down is one of the six cardinal directions, either geocentric (planet centered) north, east, south, west, down, up ; or somatocentric (body centered) forward, right, backward, left, up/headward, down/footward . It is most often used in the geocentric context.   Down is toward the nadir, usually toward the center of the planet, the opposite direction from up , which is toward the zenith.  Down has no meaning in interplanetary space.


To educate is to build up.  In English, education refers to building a person intellectually, that is, to provide with knowledge and thinking skills.  It may also include social, moral, and other aspects of personal development.

Since the sum of all human experience is far to extensive for the human mind to encompass consciously at one time, we divide it into smaller, more convenient blocks which we call subject areas.  For purposes of instruction, subject areas are further broken into smaller blocks.   It is necessary then to reassemble the blocks into a unified whole in order to make what one  has learned useful.  Education is not complete until each subject area (to the extent it has been mastered) is integrated into all the other areas, making a conceptually unified whole .  Despite the rites of passage along the way, education is a never ending quest.


An experiment is not just "trial and error", as in, "Let's see what happens if we mix this with that."  It is a carefully planned test of an hypothesis .  Every factor that might effect the result of the test is strictly controlled.  Many experiments have gone awry from failure to recognize and control a significant factor.

In the infamous experiment of  growing one bean plant in the light and one in the dark to see which grows "best" (i.e. tallest), students are astounded to find that the bean germinated in the dark grows much taller than the one germinated in the light.  They had not thought of the food stored in the seed.  The most significant factor commonly ignored in this classroom classic is individual differences among bean plants.  This is easily controlled by using 100 plants in each group.  But, have the light and dark environments been controlled for relative humidity, air movement, and temperature?

Having controlled all significant factors, only the experimental variable is different for the control and experimental groups.  In the example, the experimental variable is the amount of light.  If properly done, any difference in average growth of the groups must result from the difference in amount of light, there would be more than two groups, each with a different amount of light.

But how do you decide which grew "better"?   By height?  By total mass?  By mass of fruit?
It is necessary to decide before beginning.


Heat has long been used as the name for a form of energy.  Specifically, the random kinetic energy of the particles composing a body of mass.  Heat was a synonym for thermal energy.  This still (at least for today) seems to me to be the best use of the word.  However, it has come to my attention that, according to some presumably prestigious thermodynamicists, heat is the name of a process rather than of a form of energy.

Let's see if I can get this right.  Heat is the transference (That really means "transfer", but superfluous syllables apparently add authority to the argumentation.) of thermal energy from one body to another.  If the two bodies are in contact, it is not difficult to understand that the more energetic jostling of molecules in the body with a higher temperature will transfer some of their thermal energy to the cooler molecules at the plane of contact.  But, when does this process of conduction become heat?  As for convection, the thermal energy is moved from one place to another because the fluid body containing it is moved, it is not being transferred to another body, therefore no heat is involved.

When speaking of radiant heat we have a very perplexing problem.  In the photosphere of Sun, thermal energy is converted into electromagnetic radiation.  If this radiation is absorbed by another body and converted into thermal energy, we are told that thermal energy has been transferred through interplanetary space, and heat has occurred.  In Sun's photosphere, thermal energy has been converted into 3 photons of blue light, and radiated away.  Eight minutes later the 3 photons strike a leaf on Earth.  The first is absorbed by a carbon atom in a cellulose molecule, causing it to become thermally agitated, heat has occurred.  The second is absorbed by chlorophyl, its energy is used to split a water molecule, chemical not thermal energy, no heat has occurred.  The third photon is reflected back into interplanetary space.  Since it might be absorbed and converted into thermal energy by dust in the Andromeda Galaxy, we shall have to wait a long time to find out whether heat is occurring or not.

Somehow I find this quite unsatisfactory.  Can anyone clarify this for me?  Please?


It is most unfortunate that an hypothesis is most often defined as, "An educated guess."  Most middle school students hear only the word, "guess" which means a wild guess, as in, "guess a number between one and a hundred".  They have no idea what the word "educated" might signify in this context.  They learn that inclusion of this meaningless word in the rote response on the test differentiates the "A" student from the "C" student.  Hypothesis is frequently confused with an unsupported prediction of the outcome of a particular experiment.  Students tend to complete their experiment before writing the hypothesis, to make sure the hypothesis is "correct".

An hypothesis is a possible explanation of why things happen the way they do.  Taking into consideration all known principles of science, and known data relating to the situation in question, what might be the true cause and effect relationship operating in this case.  The hypothesis is not the prediction, it is the explanation of why the prediction seems reasonable.  When the expected experimental results are difficult to predict quantitatively from the hypothesis, the researcher may use the "null hypothesis", which states that the experimental variable will have no effect on the results.

(examples are coming)


The definitions for "Science" given in almost all books, including dictionaries, are incomplete to the point of being misleading.  They generally emphasize one component to the exclusion of others.  When asked what science is, students almost always enumerate objects they have studied in "science".  (Science is rocks, dinosaurs, stars...)  So early in my career I provided my classes with the following definition.

Science Is ...
by K. Fuller  1969

Science is one of many ways we have of learning about ourselves and our
 environment.  Some of the other ways are called; art, philosophy, religion,
 history, ...
 Science is not WHAT we study, science is HOW we study.

Science is:

1.  A goal - An attempt to describe the physical universe and the relations of its parts in
 such a way that events can be predicted and controlled.
 (theory - "pure science")

2.  A process - The gathering of information and the testing of theory by means of
 observation and experimentation .

3.  A product - A body of knowledge organized systematically, so that it is easy to find
 any particular item.

4.  A tool - The use of what we have learned to control our environment for the good of
 all mankind, ideally.

None of the four parts of science will work by itself, all four must work together to be


scientific cycle

The cycle of scientific thinking is usually given in an abbreviated, linear form with a beginning and end, labeled " The Scientific Method ", as though there were only one scientific method.  Actually, the scientific cycle is helical in nature, not a closed cycle.  Better yet, it is spiral, as the rising helix encompasses an ever widening understanding of the physical universe of which we are a part.  Each "step" leads naturally to the next, never ending.  Rather than have students memorize and regurgitate definitions of the steps around the cycle, I have found a more effective strategy is to have students identify each of the elements of the cycle in real science investigations.  (samples  are coming)  Below is the outline from which students work.

Thinking Like A Scientist

K. Fuller 99

Data that raise a question

This would be in the introduction of your report.  What was already known that caused you to ask the

The question

It is very important to consider the wording of the question very carefully.  It is easy to get useless
answers by asking the wrong questions.  Everything else in your report is guided by the question.

Additional data organized to help find an answer to the question

This is the background information related to the question.  Have others found answers to the same or
similar questions?  How is the question related to the general and specific principles of science?  Have
others developed techniques that might help you in finding an answer to the question?

A possible answer to the question (hypothesis )

Based on the information available, this could be the answer to the question.  It may have been
suggested by someone else (give them credit) or it may have occurred to you while doing your research.
Remember an hypothesis always explains “why”, not just what.  The hypothesis describes a cause and
effect relationship.

The hypothesis restated in “If ... Then...” form

This is a statement of the hypothesis in a form that makes a specific prediction which will be true only if
the hypothesis is true (ideally).  The prediction then suggests a way to test the hypothesis.

Test the hypothesis by experiment or observation

The test is an experiment or observation designed to test the prediction made by the hypothesis.  It must
be carefully controlled so that only one factor is being changed.  This helps you to determine cause and
effect relationships.  A single run of an experiment or observation is usually not enough to be sure that
the results are reliable.  A very important part of your report is the careful, detailed plan of the test,
including the measurements to be made.

The results of the test, the hypothesis is supported, weakened

Sometimes the results of the test are not clear, you cannot be sure whether the hypothesis is supported or
weakened.  You need to find another test.  If the prediction is clearly wrong, you need another
hypothesis.  If the prediction is correct, you may want further tests to confirm the hypothesis, or you may
be ready for another question.

The next hypothesis, or

If the hypothesis is rejected, you need to go back to the available data to find another possible answer.
There has to be an explanation that works, if you can find it.

The next question

Either by the answer to this question, or by the data used to find the answer, other questions should be
raised.  Even though there is no attempt to answer them now, the questions should be asked.  Along with
the results of your tests, these questions are included in the conclusion of your report as a guide to
further research.


The Scientific Method

"The Scientific Method", generally presented as though there were only one method used in science, is actually an outline for writing a thesis.   It is most of one gyre of the scientific cycle , in linear form with a start and a finish.  It begins and ends in a vacuum.  While the sequence of operations in the 3-D spiral of  the cycle is the key to scientific research, it requires support from a series of other methods.

On entering a previously unexplored field, science begins with extensive observation.  The observations are recorded and compiled into a catalog .  The cataloged phenomena are then classified, sorted into groups with significant similarities, and a logical hierarchy of relationships is worked out.  Then a theoretical framework is constructed which explains the observed relationships and interactions in terms of basic principles of science (laws of nature). Finally, theory is used guide development of a more complete understanding of the field and to tie together the various fields of study into a universal framework of cause and effect, the goal of all science .


A theory is an explanation of cause and effect relationships among phenomena, objects and events, within the area of study.  To qualify as a scientific theory, it is necessary that the theory can be used to predict observational and experimental results which are inconsistent with the predictions of competing theories.  The larger the field of phenomena encompassed by a theory, the more powerful (useful) it is.  Accepted theories are often stated in terms of "laws of nature" or "principles of science".


Up is one of the six cardinal directions, either geocentric (planet centered) north, east, south, west, down, up; or somatocentric (body centered) forward, right, backward, left, up/headward, down/footward .  Most often used in a geocentric context, up is toward the zenith, the opposite direction from down , which is toward the nadir, usually at the center of the planet.  Up has no meaning in interplanetary space.


As every student knows, every chapter has a vocabulary list of scientific words with abbreviated definitions.  Better students see it as matter for diligent, rote memorization, so that presented with either word or definition as stimulus, the corresponding response will jump to mind, correct spelling being especially important.  Good students will pair the word with a key word from the definition, thereby getting correct responses on multiple choice items.  Mastering the concepts involved wastes too much time and effort for the small resulting benefit in the grade.

The practice of learning the new words before reading them sounds, at first, like a good strategy.  However, it requires more time and effort than the results can justify.  Meanings of new words make more sense, and are more easily retained when learned in context.  If a word occurs only once or a few times, better far to spend the effort on comprehending the concept being explained, rather than on a trivia factoid without a context. Also important, it is a technique which can only be used with text books, not in real life reading.


Any plant growing in a place where it is not wanted is a weed.  It has nothing to do with the species of the plant.  One farmer's crop is another farmer's weed.  One gardener's weed is another gardener's prize specimen.  The species of grass which I carefully tend and encourage in my lawn, is a weed when it grows in my flower bed.  The pretty flowers are weeds when they grow in my lawn.

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