The Science Of Astronomy

The science of the universe, like any other natural science, is an organized study of natural phenomena. Consequently, in order to study the concepts of astronomy, one must first be familiar with some basic scientific principles.

The Scientific Method

An area of inquiry is a scientific discipline if its investigators use the scientific method—a systematic approach to researching questions and problems through objective and accurate observation, collection and analysis of data, direct experimentation, and replication of these procedures. Scientists emphasize the importance of gathering information carefully and accurately, and researchers strive to remain unbiased when evaluating information, observing phenomena, conducting experiments, and recording procedures and results. Researchers also recognize the value of skepticism and the necessity of having their findings confirmed by other scientists.

The scientific method is an idealization of the process by which scientific understanding advances. A scientist starts with what is known about a natural phenomenon (for example, the data) and will develop a theory, or an integrated set of statements, that explain various phenomena. Because a theory is too general to test, the investigator devises a hypothesis—a testable prediction—from the theory and tests the hypothesis instead of a general theory. If the hypothesis passes the test, then its acceptance as an accurate description of physical phenomena is strengthened. Repeated testing may raise the hypothesis to the status of a Law of Nature, a well-confirmed summary statement of how a natural phenomenon behaves. If the hypothesis is disproved, then it may need to be revised or even to be discarded. Chance discovery of new information may also require revision of a hypothesis.

Measurement Methods

Astronomers use a variety of methods to quantify the natural phenomena that they measure. Because the physical factors that are measured in astronomy are sometimes quite large or small, astronomers use scientific notation, or exponential numbers, to express these measurements. A number written in scientific notation is a number between 1 and 10 and multiplied by a power of 10 (see Table 2-1).

Table 2-1: Scientific Notation and Powers of Ten

Number Name

(Exponential)

Form

trillion

1,000,000,000,000

1012

billion

1,000,000,000

109

million

1,000,000

106

thousand

1,000

103

hundred

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