What’s in a name?

One of the most confusing things about the sciences (and I’m sure that there are other academic areas with equal or greater complexity) is the diversity of names for various sub-sections.  Take, for example, the commonly used description ‘physical sciences’.  What are the physical sciences?

Wikipedia defines it:

Physical Science is an encompassing term for the branches of natural science and science that study non-living systems,

but then goes on to note that this definition would seem to exclude many aspects that involve studying living things. Biological sciences is given as the opposite – the study of living systems.  The article goes on to define chemistry, earth sciences, and physics as being part of physical sciences.  So we just assume that Astrophysics fits into physics then?  What about astronomy?

Let’s complicate matters. I work in the School of Physical and Geographical Sciences, and part of what is often referred to as the chemical sciences.  That’s the catch-all term for chemistry, medicinal chemistry and forensic science courses/staff/research.  We’ve also got a school of Life Sciences, not biological sciences.

My problem with all of these categories is that different people use them to include and exclude different things.  Chemical sciences need not include forensic science.   Physical sciences may exist along side earth sciences.  Yes, they are all just labels but labels matter, particularly when hunting for information.  For example, you would need to know that the subject ‘chemistry’ may be found under chemistry, science, natural sciences, physical sciences, chemical sciences, and sometimes under biochemistry (think pre-med courses), biological sciences or life sciences depending on the structure of the site/institution you are looking at.  And chemistry has a reasonably well defined identity as a subject – most people can take a guess at what chemistry is and land pretty close to the target.  Other subjects don’t necessarily have that – hydrology and ecology for example.  Where do they fit in all of this? And just what is included in environmental sciences?

Broad classifications are helpful because they give us a place to start looking.  This post was inspired by the new blog collective  Scientopia (http://scientopia.org/blogs/) who have in the last 24 hours switched from ‘Physical Sciences’ to ‘Physics and Chemistry’ and back again.  They’re just setting up their site so changes are fair game.  Physical sciences at least gives a nod in the direction of including the earth scientists.  But how you group these things together is an important part of identity (of researchers, of bloggers, of students) and not one that can be casually dismissed.

2 thoughts on “What’s in a name?

  1. You wouldn’t believe the discussions we’ve had about how to name the categories we want to use, to adequately capture everything we think we will want to blog about, and not end up with 427,863 categories on the Scientopia main page. Categorizing, it’s not for wimps.

  2. I can imagine it is difficult – I struggle to keep my own categories and tags in order and that’s just me! I noticed this again at the weekend when we had an open day – many people were asking about subjects that I’d never heard of or confusing two subjects such as biochemistry and medicinal chemistry. Names matter more than we often realise! Thanks for the comment Zuska!

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