We take it for granted that knowledge comes from experience through the senses and that science flourishes through observation and experiment. Francis Bacon (1561–1626) is credited with being the first person to articulate the idea that science can flourish through observations and experiments. He wrote in his famous work Novum Organum (The New Organon), "Man, being the servant and interpreter of Nature, can do and understand so much and so much only as he has observed in fact or in thought of the course of nature. Beyond this he neither knows anything nor can do anything." But scientists through the ages have been using the experimental method to better understand the natural world. For example, the Iraqi Muslim physicist Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen) used experimentation to support his intromission theory of vision, which argued that rays of light are emitted from objects rather than from the eyes (1021 C.E.).
Though the way in which experiments are conducted, or the experimental method, has evolved over the centuries, the basic definition of an experiment remains the same. The word "experiment" comes from the Latin ex-periri, which means "to try out." In scientific inquiry, an experiment is defined as any method of investigating less-known fields, solving practical problems, proving theoretical assumptions, or confirming or disconfirming hypotheses.
Scientific experiments can lead to discoveries that add to our existing knowledge or revolutionize our understanding of what we know about the world. For example, in 2009, researchers created a robot scientist. The robot scientist recently conducted experiments that led to the discovery of simple but new knowledge about the genomics of the baker’s yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Ordinary baker's yeast is an organism that scientists often use as a model for understanding more complex life systems, so this was a significant discovery. (This was also the first machine to discover new scientific knowledge.) For an example of how the knowledge discovered in an experiment can revolutionize our way of thinking about the world, consider Copernicus’ mathematical presentation of and Galileo’s observation of heliocentrism.
In this activity, we are going to research famous scientific experiments from ancient times to the present and record the information in a Microsoft Office Excel timeline.
Note: Students can work alone or in groups to create the timeline. After the timeline is created, students can individually write a report outlining the steps of the scientific method taken by the scientist.
Preview the following Web sites and add them, and any others you may find useful, to your Favorites list in Internet Explorer so that students can access them later.
Consult the following two Web sites for comprehensive, annotated lists of Internet resources on the history of science, including links to biographies, general histories of science, bibliographies, primary sources, Nobel Prize scientists, the Galileo Project, Islamic scientists, the complete works of Darwin, and much more. Students can use these sites as a starting point for more detailed research about particular scientists and experiments.