A scientist in a broad sense is one engaging in a systematic activity to acquire knowledge. 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. Scientists perform research toward a more comprehensive understanding of nature, including physical, mathematical and social realms.
This is distinct from philosophers, those who use logic toward a more comprehensive understanding of intangible aspects of reality that lack a direct connection to nature, focusing on the realm of thought itself.
Scientists are also distinct from engineers, those who develop devices that serve practical purposes. When science is done with a goal toward practical utility, it is called 'applied science' (short of the creation of new devices that fall into the realm of engineering). When science is done with an inclusion of intangible aspects of reality it is called 'natural philosophy'.
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 to 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 term since we already have such words as 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.
Full article ▸