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A scientist, in the broadest sense, is any person who engages in a systematic activity to acquire knowledge or an individual that engages in such practices and traditions that are linked to schools of thought or philosophy. In a more restricted sense, a scientist is an individual who uses the scientific method. The person may be an expert in one or more areas of science. This article focuses on the more restricted use of the word.


Social roles that partly correspond with the modern scientist can be identified going back at least until 17th century natural philosophy, but the term scientist is much more recent. Until the late 19th or early 20th century, those who pursued science were called "natural philosophers" or "men of science".

English philosopher and historian of science William Whewell coined the term scientist in 1833, and it was first published in Whewell's anonymous 1834 review of Mary Somerville's On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences published in the Quarterly Review. Whewell's suggestion of the term was partly satirical, a response changing conceptions of science itself in which natural knowledge was increasingly seen as distinct from other forms of knowledge. Whewell wrote of "an increasing proclivity of separation and dismemberment" in the sciences; while highly specific terms proliferated—chemist, mathematician, naturalist—the broad term "philosopher" was no longer satisfactory to group together those who pursued science, without the caveats of "natural" or "experimental" philosopher. Members of the British Association for the Advancement of Science had been complaining about the lack of a good term at recent meetings, Whewell reported in his review; alluding to himself, he noted that "some ingenious gentleman proposed that, by analogy with artist, they might form [the word] scientist, and added that there could be no scruple in making free with this termination when we have such words as sciolist, economist, and atheist—but this was not generally palatable".

Whewell proposed the word again more seriously (and not anonymously) in his 1840 The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences:

He also proposed the term physicist at the same time, as a counterpart to the French word physicien. Neither term gained wide acceptance until decades later; scientist became a common term in the late 19th century in the United States and around the turn of the 20th century in Great Britain. By the twentieth century, the modern notion of science as a special brand of information about the world, practiced by a distinct group and pursued through a unique method, was essentially in place.


Science and technology have continually modified human existence. As a profession the scientist of today is widely recognized. Scientists include theoreticians who mainly develop new models to explain existing data and predict new results, and experimentalists who mainly test models by making measurements — though in practice the division between these activities is not clear-cut, and many scientists perform both tasks.

Mathematics is often grouped with the sciences. Like other scientists, mathematicians start with hypotheses and then conduct symbolic or computational experiments to test them. Some of the greatest physicists have also been creative mathematicians. There is a continuum from the most theoretical to the most empirical scientists with no distinct boundaries. In terms of personality, interests, training and professional activity, there is little difference between applied mathematicians and theoretical physicists.

Scientists can be motivated in several ways. Many have a desire to understand why the world is as we see it and how it came to be. They exhibit a strong curiosity about reality. Other motivations are recognition by their peers and prestige, or the desire to apply scientific knowledge for the benefit of people's health, the nations, the world, nature or industries (academic scientist and industrial scientist).

It has been suggested that scientists should honor a Hippocratic Oath for Scientists.

Scientists versus Engineers

Engineers and scientists are often confused in the minds of the general public, with the former being closer to applied science. While scientists explore nature in order to discover general principles, engineers apply established principles drawn from science in order to create new inventions and improve upon the old ones. In short, scientists study things whereas engineers design things. However, there are plenty of instances where significant accomplishments are made in both fields by the same individual. When a scientist has also an engineering education, the same individual would explore principles in nature to solve problems and to design new technology. Scientists often perform some engineering tasks in designing experimental equipment and building prototypes, and some engineers do first-rate scientific research. Mechanical, electrical, chemical and aerospace engineers are often at the forefront of scientific investigation of new phenomena and materials. Peter Debye received a degree in electrical engineering and a doctorate in physics before eventually winning a Nobel Prize in chemistry. Similarly, Paul Dirac, one of the founders of quantum mechanics, began his academic career as an electrical engineer before proceeding to mathematics and later theoretical physics. Claude Shannon, a theoretical engineer, founded modern information theory.

Historical development

The social roles of "scientists", and their predecessors before the emergence of modern scientific disciplines, have evolved considerably over time. Scientists of different eras (and before them, natural philosophers, mathematicians, natural historians, natural theologians, engineers, and other who contributed to the development of science) have had widely different places in society, and the social norms, ethical values, and epistemic virtues associated with scientists—and expected of them—have changed over time as well. Accordingly, many different historical figures can be identified as early scientists, depending on which elements of modern science are taken to be essential. Some historians point to the seventeenth century as the period when science in a recognizably modern form developed (what is popularly called the Scientific Revolution), and hence is when the first people who can be considered scientists are to be found. If the category of "scientist" is limited to those who do scientific research as a profession, then the social role of scientist essentially emerged in the 19th century as part of the professionalization of science.

Ancient and medieval science

Knowledge about nature in Classical Antiquity was pursued by many kinds of scholars. Greek contributions to science—including works of geometry and mathematical astronomy, early accounts of biological processes and catalogs of plants and animals, and theories of knowledge and learning—were produced by philosophers and physicians, as well as practitioners of various trades. These roles, and their associations with scientific knowledge, spread with the Roman Empire and, with the spread of Christianity became closely link to religious institutions in most of Europe. Astrology and astronomy became an important area of knowledge, and the role of astronomer/astrologer developed with the support political and religions patronage. By the time of the medieval university system, knowledge was divide into the trivium—philosophy, including natural philosophy—and the quadrivium—mathematics, including astronomy. Hence, the medieval analogs of scientists were often either philosophers or mathematicians. Knowledge of plants and animals was broadly the province of physicians.

Science in medieval Islam generated some new modes of developing natural knowledge, although still within the bounds of existing social roles such as philosopher and mathematician. An early scientific method which emphasized experimentation was developed by the polymathic Iraqimarker philosopher and astronomer-mathematician Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen), circa 1021 AD, in his Book of Optics, and he has been described as the "first scientist" for this reason. Many proto-scientists from the Islamic Golden Age and medieval and Renaissance Europe are considered polymaths, in part because of the lack of anything corresponding to modern scientific disciplines. Many of these early polymaths were also religious priests and theologians: for example, Alhazen and al-Biruni were mutakallimiin; the physician Avicenna was a hafiz; the physician Ibn al-Nafis was a hafiz, muhaddith and ulema; the botanist Otto Brunfels was a theologian and historian of Protestantism; the astronomer and physician Nicolaus Copernicus was a priest.

Historical scientists

Descartes was not only a pioneer of analytic geometry but formulated a theory of mechanics and advanced ideas about the origins of animal movement and perception. Vision interested the physicists Young and Helmholtz, who also studied optics, hearing and music. Newton extended Descartes' mathematics by inventing calculus (contemporaneously with Leibniz). He provided a comprehensive formulation of classical mechanics and investigated light and optics. Fourier founded a new branch of mathematics — infinite, periodic series — studied heat flow and infrared radiation, and discovered the greenhouse effect. Von Neumann, Turing, Khinchin, Markov and Wiener, all mathematicians, made major contributions to science and probability theory, including the ideas behind computers, and some of the foundations of statistical mechanics and quantum mechanics. Many mathematically inclined scientists, including Galileo, were also musicians.

In the late 19th century, Louis Pasteur, an organic chemist, discovered that microorganisms can cause disease. A few years earlier, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., the Americanmarker physician, poet and essayist, noted that sepsis in women following childbirth was spread by the hands of doctors and nurses, four years before Semmelweis in Europe. There are many compelling stories in medicine and biology, such as the development of ideas about the circulation of blood from Galen to Harvey. The flowering of genetics and molecular biology in the 20th century is replete with famous names. Ramón y Cajal won the Nobel Prize in 1906 for his remarkable observations in neuroanatomy.

Some see a dichotomy between experimental sciences and purely "observational" sciences such as astronomy, meteorology, oceanography and seismology. But astronomers have done basic research in optics, developed charge-coupled devices, and in recent decades have sent space probes to study other planets in addition to using the Hubble Telescope to probe the origins of the Universe some 14 billion years ago. Microwave spectroscopy has now identified dozens of organic molecules in interstellar space, requiring laboratory experimentation and computer simulation to confirm the observational data and starting a new branch of chemistry. Computer modeling and numerical methods are techniques required of students in every field of quantitative science.

Those considering science as a career often look to the frontiers. These include cosmology and biology, especially molecular biology and the human genome project. Other areas of active research include the exploration of matter at the scale of elementary particles as described by high-energy physics, and nanotechnology, which hopes to develop electronics including microscopic computers, and perhaps artificial intelligence. Although there have been remarkable discoveries with regard to brain function and neurotransmitters, the nature of the mind and human thought still remain unknown.

Types of scientists

astrobiologists, botanists, biophysicists, entomologists, evolutionary biologists, ecologists, geneticists, herpetologists, ichthyologists, immunologists, lepidopterists, microbiologists, neuroscientists, ornithologists, paleontologists, pathologists, pharmacologists, physiologists, zoologists and biotechnologist
biochemists, Organic Chemist, Physical chemist, Inorganic Chemist, Analytical Chemist
Computer scientists
Engineers: though not specifically devoted to scientific research, math and science are applied in developing solutions for technical problems.
Earth scientists: geologists, mineralogists, paleontologists, seismologists, volcanologists, hydrologists, glaciologists, limnologists, meteorologists, and oceanographers
Educational psychologists
Library scientists
Management scientists
Medical scientists
Military scientists
Social scientists
anthropologists, communication scientists, demographers, economists, geographers, political economists, political scientists, and sociologists
Technological and agricultural scientists

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