The natural sciences are those branches of science that seek to elucidate the rules that govern the natural world through scientific methods. The term “natural science” is used to distinguish the subject from the social sciences, which apply the scientific method to study human behavior and social patterns; the humanities, which use a critical or analytical approach to study the human condition; and the formal sciences such as mathematics andlogic, which use an a priori, as opposed to factual methodology to study formal systems.
There are five branches of natural science: astronomy, biology, chemistry, the Earth sciences and physics. This distinguishes sciences that cover inquiry into the world of nature from human sciences such as anthropology, sociology and linguistics, and from formal sciences such as mathematics and logic. Despite their differences, these sciences sometimes overlap; the social sciences and biology both study human beings as organisms, for example, and mathematics is used regularly in all the natural sciences.
The natural sciences are among the basic sciences, or scientific fields where study is motivated purely by curiosity. They also form the basis for applied sciences, however, which find real-world, practical applications for concepts and methods developed in basic science. In academic contexts, the natural and applied sciences are distinguished from the social sciences on the one hand, and the humanities on the other. Not all institutions and scientists are in agreement, however, about the classification of sciences and other academic disciplines.
Alongside its traditional usage, natural science may encompass natural history, which emerged in the 16th century and focused on the description and classification of plants, animals, minerals and other natural objects. Today, natural history refers to observational descriptions of the natural world aimed at popular audiences rather than an academic ones. The natural sciences are sometimes referred to colloquially as hard science, or fields seen as relying on experimental, quantifiable data or the scientific method and focusing on accuracy and objectivity. These usually include physics, chemistry and biology. By contrast, soft science is used a as a pejorative term to describe fields more reliant on qualitative research, including the social sciences.
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