A true scientist lives up to the etymological meaning of the title ‘one who knows’. Anything scientific is based on facts – observable facts that can be recorded, tested, checked, and verified.

Science, then, deals with human knowledge – as far as it has gone. It has gone very far indeed since its beginnings in ancient times, when the great Greek scientist Aristotle sought to write down all that was known about the natural world.

Who are some of the more important explorers of knowledge – and by what terms are they known?


The queen of the sciences

Some say that this is not a science at all, some call it the queen of the sciences. It is the study of number, shape and shape, their meaning and interrelationships.


The nature of all things

The field is the basic nature of the material world – what it is made of, and how each part interacts with every other, on all levels from the invisibly small to the invisibly large.


What’s above?

The field is the heavens and all that’s in them – planets, galaxies, stars, and other universes.


And what’s below?

The field is the comparatively little and insignificant whirling ball on which we live – the Earth. How did our planet come into being, what is it made of, how were its mountains, oceans, rivers, plains, and valleys formed, and what lies deep beneath the Earth’s crust?


Whatever the weather

The field is the earth’s atmosphere, and how we can understand the processes that give rise to changes in the weather. This science looks at both normal weather patterns and the exceptional catastrophic events.


What is life?

The field is all living organisms – from the simplest one-celled amoeba to the amazingly complex and mystifying structure we call a human being. Planet or animal, flesh or vegetable, denizen of water, earth, or air – if it lives and grows, this is where it is studied.



Biology classifies life into two great divisions – plant and animals. This science’s province is the former category – flowers, trees, shrubs, mosses, marine vegetation, blossoms, fruits, seeds, grasses, and all the rest that make up the plant kingdom.


And Fauna

Animals of every description, kind and condition, from birds to bees, fish to fowl, reptiles to humans, are the special area of exploration of this science.


And all the little bugs

There are over a million different species of insects so far described and scientists estimate that there may be three times as many still to be discovered. This science is dedicated to finding out more about all insects, known and unknown.


Times past

The field is the past record of mankind – from the time we first evolved from our ape-like ancestors to the recent past when we became industrialists. Much of the evidence used in this science is dug up from under the ground, but there are other techniques too, such as aerial photography.



What is the scientist called?

You will have noticed that most of the sciences have a name that ends in –logy; this, as already noted, is from the Greek logos, meaning word or knowledge.  Persons who study a science ending in –logy are called –logists; some examples are given below.

But there is another large group of sciences whose names end in –graphy; this comes from the Greek graphein, to write, so that these sciences are literally ‘the writing of…’, or more accurately, ‘the description of…’.  One example is geography, the description of the Earth.  The practitioner always ends –grapher, e.g. geographer.

Less common are sciences ending –nomy.  This is from the Greek word nomos, rule, law.  Here we have astronomy, to add to agronomy that we met earlier.  Unfortunately, the way to form the name for the scientist is irregular, being sometimes –nomer and sometimes –nomist.  See table below.

Finally there are many sciences whose names end in –ics.  This is just an all-purpose noun ending, coming from Greek via Latin.  In the list above we have mathematics and physics.  Once again the name of the scientist is irregular: sometimes it goes –ician, sometimes –icist.

Science Scientist























Can you match the words?

physics = The science of the basis of the material

archaeology = The science of humanity’s past

astronomy = The science of the stars and planets

mathematics = The science of number, shape, space

botany = The science of the plant kingdom

entomology = The science of insects

geology = The science of the Earth

biology = The science of all living creatures

meteorology = The science of the atmosphere and weather

zoology = The science of the animal kingdom

Do you understand the words?

A physicist is interested in ants and wasps?  No

An astronomer works with a telescope?  Yes

A botanist would be useful in a pharmaceutical company?  Yes

A meteorologist uses a barometer.  Yes

Mathematics involves digging things up. No

Biologists are only interested in abstract data. No

Geology involves data from all over the world. Yes

You might find an archaeologist in an aeroplane.  Yes

Entomologists like turning over stones. Yes

Zoologists study crops and vegetables. No


The Great Learning

Mathematics is not only the queen of the sciences, it also has pole position as far as its name goes. The derivation is from Greek mathematika, which simply means things learnt, hence knowledge.  It also appears in English in the word polymath, a person who is competent in many fields of learning (the prefix is Greek poly-, many).

Modern mathematics contains many special fields, but the three that were traditionally taught at school level all have interesting derivations. Arithmetic, the manipulation of numerical values, comes straight from the Greek arithmos, a number; the person who studies this is an arithmetician. Algebra, doing arithmetic but with abstract symbols (usually letters) instead of actual numbers, is from an Arabic word, al-jabr, which originally meant setting broken bones but came to mean any system of putting jumbled-up things in order.  The expert in this is an algebraist. Geometry, the study of angles, curves, shapes, etc. is literally ‘measurement of the Earth’, its roots being Greek ge, the Earth (of which more shortly(, plus Greek metron, measurement. Geometry is now solely a branch of mathematics, and its practitioner is a geometrician.  Those of you who got on well at school will have come across the calculus, an advanced type of algebra dealing with infinitely varying quantities; the word is the same as the Latin for a little pebble, as used for counting in ancient times, and is also the basis for our words calculate, calculation, etc.

The nature of all things

The Greek word physis means the natural form that a thing has, its true nature; from this root we get physics, the science of the nature of matter and energy.  Branches of physics include:

atomic physics – study of the nature of the atom, the basic unit of matter that was at one time thought to be the smallest possible entity – hence its name which literally means ‘that which cannot be divided’ (from Greek a-, not, the tomaios, cut off)

nuclear physics – study of the nucleus of the atom. It turned out that the atom was not indivisible after all, but consisted of a dense nucleus with a shell of electrons revolving around it (Latin nucleus, kernel, from nux, nut)

particle physics – study of the particles that make up the nucleus (physicists have given these particles weird names as quark, lepton, gluon)

solid-state physics – study of the nature of matter as it exists in solids in a crystalline form; this has applications in electronics, where circuits are made of crystals of silicon

astrophysics – study of the physical nature of the stars and planets (for derivation, see below)

The universe

The study of the entire universe, or indeed of the infinite number of other universes that may exist besides our own, is known as cosmology, from Greek kosmos, universe.  The same root is in the adjective cosmic, meaning belonging to the whole universe, used literally in cosmic radiation or figuratively in of cosmic importance.

Astronomy is built on Greek astron, star, and nomos, law, or order.  The astronomer is interested in the laws that control the stars and other celestial bodies.  The adjective is astronomical, a word often used in a non-heavenly sense, as in ‘the astronomical size of the national debt’. Astronomy deals in such enormous distances that the adjective astronomical is applied to any tremendously large figure.

Astron, star, combines with logos to form astrology, which assesses the influence of planets and stars on human events.  The practitioner is an astrologer; note that this is an exception to the rule that science –logy has as its practitioner –logist (maybe this reflects astrology’s doubtful claim to be a science).

By etymology, an astronaut is a ‘sailor among the stars’ (Greek nautes, sailor).  This person is termed a cosmonaut by the Russians, ‘sailor in the universe’.  Nautical, relating to sailors, sailing, ships, or navigation, derives also from nautes.

Aster is a star-shaped flower. Asterisk, a star-shaped symbol (*), is generally used to direct the reader to look for a footnote. Astrophysics is that branch of physics dealing with heavenly bodies.

Disaster and disastrous also come from astron, star.  In ancient times it was believed that the stars rules human destiny; any misfortune or calamity, therefore, happened to someone because the stars were in opposition.  (Dis-, a prefix of many meanings, in this word signifies against.)

The Earth and its life

Geology is the science of the Earth; the scientist is a geologist, and the adjective is geological.  The study focuses on the history of our planet, and the matter that it is composed of.

Geography is writing about (graphein, to write), or mapping the earth.  A practitioner of the science is a geographer, the adjective is geographic.  A specialized branch of this is cartography, making maps (from Latin charta, chart or map; ultimately from Greek kharte, papyrus, i.e. something to write on).

Modern branches of geology include:

seismology, the study of earthquakes (Greek seismos, a shaking, an earthquake; the same root is in Poseidon, god of the sea, whom the Greeks believed to be responsible for earthquakes)

volcanology or vulcanology, the study of volcanoes (derived from the name of Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and metalworking; his name occurs again in vulcanized rubber, which is hardened by a heat process)

petrology, the study of the nature of rocks (Latin petra, a rock; from this root we also get petroleum, more usually known as petrol, which is literally ‘oil from the rocks’ – Latin petra, plus oleum, oil)

oceanography, the study of the seas and oceans (from the name of the Greek god Oceanos, who was not god of the sea but of a stream of water that was believed to encircle the Earth)

The weather

The study of the weather is called meteorology; what has this to do with meteors, otherwise known as shooting stars?  These words are derived from Greek meteoron, something which is up in the sky.  Meteorologists now make extensive use of pictures relayed back to Earth from satellites (Latin satelles, an attendant), but also use traditional ways to measure atmospheric pressure (with a barometer), temperature (with a thermometer), and wind (with an anemometer).

A major branch of meteorology is hydrology, the study of water in the atmosphere and on Earth (Greek hydor, hydros, water). Hydrologists study the way that water is evaporated from the oceans and then deposited again as rain or snow, and they also study the causes of floods and droughts.

Can you match the words?

astronaut = ‘sailor of the stars’

cartographer = draws maps

seismologist = studies earthquakes

arithmetician = manipulates numbers

astrophysicist = studies the nature of the stars

volcanologist = studies of volcanoes

cosmologist = studies the universe

meteorologist = foretells the weather

cosmonaut = ‘sailor of the universe’

astrologer = foretells happenings by the stars

Do you understand the words?

An aster might be interesting to a botanist.  Yes

Do petrological investigations sometimes lead to the discovery of oil?  Yes

A polymath is an expert in population figures.  No

An astrophysicist would be interested in samples of dust from Mars.  Yes

A geometrician is a person who makes maps.  No

Meteorology is the study of meteors. No

Are nautical manoeuvres carried out at sea?  Yes

An astrologer uses a radio-telescope.  No

A cosmonaut travels in a space capsule.  Yes

Algebra is the science of foretelling disasters. No


What is life?

The science of life in general is biology, from the Greek bios, life (we have already met biography, the writing of a life story, in Session 36).  In modern practice, scientists do not call themselves plain ‘biologists’, they specify a particular branch of the study.  Thus there is:

microbiology – the study of microscopic forms of life (the derivations is from Greek micros, small)

marine biology – the study of all the forms of life in the sea (from Latin mare, sea); this is a branch of oceanography.

Other important life sciences that do not have bio– as part of their name are:

genetics – the study of the workings of biological inheritance (from Greek genesis, a beginning, origin); the scientist is a geneticist

ecology – the study of creatures in their natural environment (Greek oikos, home: see Session 37)

physiology – the study of the functioning of the body (from Greek physis, nature).

The prefix bio– also occurs in many other words to show the connection with living things: biochemistry, the chemistry of living matter; biotechnology, the use of living things (usually bacteria) to power industrial processes; biodegradable (adj.), capable of being decomposed by bacteria, etc.

The plant kingdom

The two great divisions of life forms are the plant kingdom and the animal kingdom. Plants came first, in evolutionary history.  Their study is called botany, from Greek botane, grass for a cow to eat, or by extension any plant; the scientist is a botanist.  Much of botany is of great practical importance in developing new and better crops.  One useful branch is mycology, the study of fungi (Greek mykes, fungus).

The animal kingdom

The study of the animal kingdom is known as zoology.  Be careful of the pronunciation: the two os should be separate, as in co-operate, even though there is no hypen to indicate that separation.  Say zoo-OL’-ǝ –ji (and for the adjective zoological, zoo-ǝ-LOJ’-i-kǝl); a zoo, a park displaying animals, is short for zoological gardens, and is pronounced as one syllable.

The derivation is from Greek zoion, an animal.  We find the same root in zodiac, a diagram used in astrology, which contains the Latin names of a number of animals (leo, lion, taurus, bull, etc.).  It also appears in spermatozoon, plural spermatozoa, sperm cells (because they used to be thought of as tiny animals in their own right, which they are not).


Flies, bees, beetles, wasps, and other insects are segmented creatures – head, thorax, and abdomen. Where these parts join, there appears to be imaginative eye a ‘cutting in’ of the body.  Hence the branch of zoology dealing with insects is aptly named entomology, from Greek en-, in, plus tome, a cutting.  The adjective is entomological.  (Be very careful not to confuse this with etymology, your present study, word origins; the derivation is from Greek etymos, true, actual.)

The prefix ec-, from Greek ek-, means out.  (The Latin prefix, you will recall, is ex-.)  Combine ec– with tome to derive the words for surgical procedures in which parts are ‘cut out’, or removed: tonsillectomy (the tonsils), appendectomy (the appendix), mastectomy (the breast), hysterectomy (the uterus), prostatectomy (the prostate), etc.

Humanity’s history

The study of the material remains of the human past is called archaeology, from the Greek archaeos, ancient; so, literally, the study of ancient things.  From the same root comes the adjective archaic, which is used to mean ‘ancient’ in a derogatory sense: out-of-date, antiquated.  (Do not confuse these with words containing arch– meaning chief, as in patriarch; these latter have nothing to do with age, however tempting it might be to think so.)

Another root for words concerned with the remote past is palaeo– which is from another Greek adjective meaning ‘ancient’.  It appears in palaeontology, the study of fossils (from Greek on, ontos, a being, a thing that exists; so, literally, the study of things that existed in ancient times).  More specificially, we have palaeobotany, the study of the plants of prehistoric times, and palaeoanthropology, the study of the fossils of early humans (Greek anthropos, a human).

Curiously, palaegraphy does not mean writing about or describing ancient times; it is the study of old handwriting, and not very old at that; an expert in palaeography might be able to tell Henry VIII’s writing from Shakespeare’s.

Teasers for the amateur etymologist

Most satellites circle in orbit around the Earth.  But some are geostationary – can you guess what this means, and give its derivation?

Answer: A geostationary satellite is one that stays in the same place above the Earth all the time (because it is orbiting at exactly the same speed as the Earth rotates).  The derivation is from Greek ge-, Earth, plus Latin statio, standing still (note hybrid derivation).

There is a word derived from the Latin petra that literally means ‘to turn to stone’, but is more usually used to mean ‘to frighten thoroughly’.   What is it?

Answer: Petrify, combining Latin petra, rock or stone, with –fy, from facio, to make, turn into.

Can you work out what the science of palaeoecology is about?

Answer: Arachnology.

You probably know that a spider is not an insect, and is therefore not an object of study by an entomologist. Construct the word for the science of spiders, using the root arachno-, from the Greek arakhne, spider.

Answer: Cryptographer.

The root crypto– comes from Greek kryptos, hidden; and from it we get cryptology, the science of codes and code-breaking.  Can you guess the word for a person who is skilled in writing in code?




Can you match the words?

zodiac = an astrological diagram

palaeography = the study of old handwriting

mycology = the study of fungi

biotechnology = the use of bacteria in industry

appendectomy = removal of the appendix

microbiology = the science of very small creatures

physiology = the study of the body’s workings

palaeontology = the science of fossils

ecology = the study of living things in their environment

etymology = the study of word origins

Do you understand the words?

Biodegradable packaging lasts for ever. No

An entomologist studies bees and wasps.  Yes

A permatozoon is a kind of animal.  No

Ecology is the study of financial systems. No

A surgeon will only perform a mastectomy as a last resort.  Yes

The ‘missing link’ is likely to be found by a palaeoanthropologist.  Yes

A botanical garden is one used for the scientific study of plants.  Yes

If you find dry rot in the house you call in a mycologist.  Yes

A zodiac is an apparatus used by a biologist.  No

Routine tonsillectomy is an archaic procedure.  Yes

Baby don’t cry

Any word that starts with the root cryo– means something to do with freezing (from the Greek kryos, frost).  Thus cryogenics is the branch of physics that deals with very low temperatures, and cryobiology is the study of animals and plants that live in sub-zero conditions.

Cryonics is the practice of preserving human bodies frozen in liquid nitrogen, with a view to reviving them at some point in the future when a cure has been found for whatever the person died of.


©Dodgsons KingsWay Sanctuary Church, 1973.



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