MadSci Network: Earth Sciences

Re: Difference between physical, earth, environmental, and natural science?

Date: Tue Nov 14 11:13:19 2000
Posted By: Dan Berger, Faculty Chemistry/Science, Bluffton College
Area of science: Earth Sciences
ID: 973727521.Es

I am a graduating highschool student interested in science - particularly the "physical" realms (_geology_, oceanography, astronomy) rather than life (such as biology). However, while researching college majors I was confused at what the differences are between physical, earth, environmental, and natural sciences. I appreciate your time and any help available.


I'm not surprised that you are confused, because you have terms from several different levels of definition there. Some of the terms overlap!

Natural sciences
Any of several sciences that deal with non-human nature and its laws, as distinct from the "social sciences" which deal with humans. This distinction is not absolute; archeology is one of several fields with a foot in both camps.

"The sciences" are usually distinguished from "the humanities," but this is a false dichotomy. Science can be beautiful and uplifting in both theory and practice, and the humanities often involve detailed technical analysis.

As you can see, everything in your question falls under the heading of "natural science." Natural sciences are often divided into two categories:

Physical sciences
The study of the non-living world; normally said to include physics, chemistry, astronomy, oceanography and geology.

Biological sciences
The study of living things. However, this is quite fluid, and includes all sorts of stuff from the physical sciences. For example, there are fields such as biophysics, biochemistry, and environmental science, which take techniques and theories from physics, chemistry and geology.

Then there are the sub-specialties, which are not terribly well-defined except by their subject matter. For example,

Earth sciences
The study of the Earth (this sometimes includes planetology, the study of the other worlds of our Solar System). One can specialize in geophysics or geochemistry as well as in geology in general, and more recent research even comes under the heading of "biogeology," the influence of living things upon geological processes.

Environmental sciences
The study of the "natural" environment. Specialties under this heading include analytical chemistry, ecology (the study of the interactions of living things with each other and their environments), atmospheric chemistry and physics as well as meteorology, and so forth.

A word of warning: "Environmental science" is sometimes just a catchy buzz-phrase used by colleges to recruit students. I would be very wary of "environmental science" majors unless they are add-ons to a more traditional physics, chemistry, geology or biology major.

Dan Berger
Bluffton College

Current Queue | Current Queue for Earth Sciences | Earth Sciences archives

Try the links in the MadSci Library for more information on Earth Sciences.

MadSci Home | Information | Search | Random Knowledge Generator | MadSci Archives | Mad Library | MAD Labs | MAD FAQs | Ask a ? | Join Us! | Help Support MadSci

MadSci Network,
© 1995-2000. All rights reserved.