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1.4: Environment and environmental science

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  • Viewed from space, Earth (Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)) offers no clues about the diversity of lifeforms that reside there. The first forms of life on Earth are thought to have been microorganisms that existed for billions of years in the ocean before plants and animals appeared. The mammals, birds, and plants so familiar to us are all relatively recent, originating 130 to 200 million years ago. Humans have inhabited this planet for only the last 2.5 million years, and only in the last 200,000 years have humans started looking like we do today. There are around 7.35 billion people today (

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    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): This NASA image is a composite of several satellite-based views of Earth. To make the whole-Earth image, NASA scientists combine observations of different parts of the planet. (credit: NASA/GSFC/NOAA/USGS)

    The word environment describes living and nonliving surroundings relevant to organisms. It incorporates physical, chemical and biological factors and processes that determine the growth and survival of organisms, populations, and communities. All these components fit within the ecosystem concept as a way to organize all of the factors and processes that make up the environment. The ecosystem includes organisms and their environment within a specific area. Review the previous section for in-depth information regarding the Earth’s ecosystems. Today, human activities influence all of the Earth’s ecosystems.

    Environmental science studies all aspects of the environment in an interdisciplinary way. This means that it requires the knowledge of various other subjects including biology, chemistry, physics, statistics, microbiology, biochemistry, geology, economics, law, sociology, etc. It is a relatively new field of study that has evolved from integrated use of many disciplines. Environmental engineering is one of the fastest growing and most complex disciplines of engineering. Environmental engineers solve problems and design systems using knowledge of environmental concepts and ecology, thereby providing solutions to various environmental problems. Environmentalism, in contrast, is a social movement through which citizens are involved in activism to further the protection of environmental landmarks and natural resources. This is not a field of science, but incorporates some aspects of environmental knowledge to advance conservation and sustainability efforts.

    The Process of Science

    Environmental science is a science, but what exactly is science? Science (from the Latin scientia, meaning “knowledge”) can be defined as all of the fields of study that attempt to comprehend the nature of the universe and all its parts. The scientific method is a method of research with defined steps that include experiments and careful observation. One of the most important aspects of this method is the testing of hypotheses by means of repeatable experiments. A hypothesis is a suggested explanation for an event, which can be tested. A theory is a tested and confirmed explanation for observations or phenomena that is supported by many repeated experiences and observations.

    The scientific method

    The scientific process typically starts with an observation (often a problem to be solved) that leads to a question. The scientific method consists of a series of well-defined steps. If a hypothesis is not supported by experimental data, a new hypothesis can be proposed. Let’s think about a simple problem that starts with an observation and apply the scientific method to solve the problem. One Monday morning, a student arrives in class and quickly discovers that the classroom is too warm. That is an observation that also describes a problem: the classroom is too warm. The student then asks a question: “Why is the classroom so warm?”

    Proposing a Hypothesis

    Recall that a hypothesis is a suggested explanation that can be tested. To solve a problem, several hypotheses may be proposed. For example, one hypothesis might be, “The classroom is warm because no one turned on the air conditioning.” But there could be other responses to the question, and therefore other hypotheses may be proposed. A second hypothesis might be, “The classroom is warm because there is a power failure, and so the air conditioning doesn’t work.” Once a hypothesis has been selected, the student can make a prediction. A prediction is similar to a hypothesis but it typically has the format “If . . . then . . . .” For example, the prediction for the first hypothesis might be, “If the student turns on the air conditioning, then the classroom will no longer be too warm.”

    Testing a Hypothesis

    A valid hypothesis must be testable. It should also be falsifiable, meaning that it can be disproven by experimental results. Importantly, science does not claim to “prove” anything because scientific understandings are always subject to modification with further information. This step — openness to disproving ideas — is what distinguishes sciences from non-sciences. The presence of the supernatural, for instance, is neither testable nor falsifiable.

    To test a hypothesis, a researcher will conduct one or more experiments designed to eliminate, or disprove, the hypotheses. Each experiment will have one or more variables and one or more controls. A variable is any part of the experiment that can vary or change during the experiment. The independent variable is the variable that is manipulated throughout the course of the experiment. The dependent variable, or response variable is the variable by which we measure change in response to the independent variable. Ideally, all changes that we measure in the dependent variable are because of the manipulations we made to the independent variable. In most experiments, we will maintain one group that has had no experimental change made to it. This is the control group. It contains every feature of the experimental group except it is not given any manipulation. Therefore, if the results of the experimental group differ from the control group, the difference must be due to the hypothesized manipulation, rather than some outside factor. Look for the variables and controls in the examples that follow.

    To test the hypothesis “The classroom is warm because no one turned on the air conditioning,” the student would find out if the air conditioning is on. If the air conditioning is turned on but does not work, there should be another reason, and this hypothesis should be rejected. To test the second hypothesis, the student could check if the lights in the classroom are functional. If so, there is no power failure and this hypothesis should be rejected. Each hypothesis should be tested by carrying out appropriate experiments. Be aware that rejecting one hypothesis does not determine whether or not the other hypotheses can be accepted; it simply eliminates one hypothesis that is not valid (Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\)). Using the scientific method, the hypotheses that are inconsistent with experimental data are rejected.

    The scientific method may seem too rigid and structured. It is important to keep in mind that, although scientists often follow this sequence, there is flexibility. Sometimes an experiment leads to conclusions that favor a change in approach; often, an experiment brings entirely new scientific questions to the puzzle. Many times, science does not operate in a linear fashion; instead, scientists continually draw inferences and make generalizations, finding patterns as their research proceeds. Scientific reasoning is more complex than the scientific method alone suggests. Notice, too, that the scientific method can be applied to solving problems that aren’t necessarily scientific in nature.

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    Figure 1\(\PageIndex{2}\): The scientific method consists of a series of well-defined steps. If a hypothesis is not supported by experimental data, a new hypothesis can be proposed.