Science has been around in one form or another since mankind first started asking questions about the world around them. In fact, the word "science" comes from the Latin word scienta, meaning "knowledge". Knowledge about the natural world and how things work was gathered long before man learned to create permanent records, and was passed on from one generation to the next by word of mouth. The earliest surving records of scientific knowledge belong to the ancient civilisations of the Middle East, whose contributions in the field of mathematics, astronomy and medicine would shape the natural philosophy of ancient Greece, although it is probable that their scientific studies were limited to areas that had practical applications or that were of significance for religious reasons.
The ancient Greek philosophers were probably the first people to attempt an explanation of the world around them that relied on natural rather than supernatural causes. This "natural philosophy" would form the basis for what would later be known as "science". It was not until the 19th century CE, however, that science would emerge as a field of study in its own right, thanks largely to the Scientific Revolution that began in the 16th century. During this period, new ideas and discoveries about the nature of the universe challenged both the centuries-old theories of the Greek philosophers and the religious doctrines of the Catholic church.
Nicolaus Copernicus formulated his heliocentric model of the solar system, which Johannes Kepler would later confirm and improve upon, thanks largely to the invention of the telescope and the meticulous astronomical observations of Tycho Brahe. Meanwhile Galileo Galilei was carrying out experiments to determine the nature of bodies in motion, undertaking his own astronomical observations, and attempting to formalise his theories concerning his discoveries using mathematics. The work of these men and others during this period would greatly influence the work of their successors, including Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz.
From the seventeenth century onwards, the study of science gradually evolved into a mainstream academic discipline. Societies and academies were formed with the aim of furthering scientific knowledge. The widespread availability of the printing press meant that new ideas and discoveries could be quickly disseminated throughout the entire scientific community. New and better scientific instruments were constructed, and new mathematical techniques emerged to facilitate the expression of scientific theories - notably the calculus, which was developed independently by Newton and Liebnitz. The "scientific method", which requires the rigorous testing of hypotheses through careful and repeated experimentation, observation and measurement, also gained widespread acceptance.
By the early nineteenth century, the basis for modern contemporary science had been firmly established. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, science progressed in leaps and bounds. The structure of the atom was laid bare for the world to see. Einstein's theories on relativity and the emergence of quantum mechanics created a new scientic era. Our understanding of the physical world, and the practical application of that knowledge, has rapidly and dramatically changed the way we live. Motor vehicles, domestic appliances, computers, mobile phones - in fact just about all the trappings of modern life - are possible thanks to the scientific advances, and the technological innovations resulting from those advances, of the last two centuries.
The extent to which we now take these developments for granted is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that we can watch a jumbo jet weighing over four hundred metric tonnes lift itself into the air, or watch a news report on the latest NASA space mission, without a sense of wonder. There is now a whole generation of young adults who cannot remember a world without the Internet or mobile phones. We should not, however, become complacent. The threat of global thermonuclear war may have receded, but we still face potentially huge problems as our planet struggles to adapt to the impact of human population growth and industrialisation. Continued scientific advancement is perhaps our best chance to avert a possible disaster.