From classical antiquity through the 19th century, science as a type of knowledge was more closely linked to philosophy. In the West, the term natural philosophy encompassed fields of study that are currently associated with disciplines such as classical physics, astronomy and medicine:3[b] and was a precursor of modern natural sciences (life science and physical science). In the 17th and 18th centuries, scientists increasingly sought to formulate knowledge in terms of laws of nature. Over the centuries, the term science became associated with the scientific method, a systematic way of studying the natural world and particularly in the 19th century, multiple distinguishing characteristics of contemporary modern science began to take shape.
Modern science is typically divided into three major branches that consist of the natural sciences (e.g. biology, chemistry, physics), which study nature in the broadest sense; the social sciences (e.g. psychology, sociology, economics), which study individuals and societies; and the formal sciences (e.g. mathematics, logic, theoretical computer science), which study abstract concepts. There is disagreement,:54 however, on the formal sciences being a science as they do not rely on empirical evidence. Disciplines that use science, such as engineering and medicine, are described as applied sciences.
Science is related to research and is commonly organized by academic and research institutions as well as government agencies and companies. The practical impact of scientific research has led to the emergence of science policies that seek to influence the scientific enterprise by prioritizing the development of commercial products, armaments, health care, and environmental protection.
Science in a broad sense existed before the modern era and in many historical civilizations. Modern science is distinct in its approach and successful in its results, so it now defines what science is in the strictest sense of the term.[c] Science in its original sense was a word for a type of knowledge, rather than a specialized word for the pursuit of such knowledge. In particular, it was the type of knowledge which people can communicate to each other and share. For example, knowledge about the working of natural things was gathered long before recorded history and led to the development of complex abstract thought. This is shown by the construction of complex calendars, techniques for making poisonous plants edible, public works at national scale, such as those which harnessed the floodplain of the Yangtse with reservoirs, dams, and dikes, and buildings such as the Pyramids. However, no consistent conscious distinction was made between knowledge of such things, which are true in every community, and other types of communal knowledge, such as mythologies and legal systems. Metallurgy was known in prehistory, and the Vinča culture was the earliest known producer of bronze-like alloys. It is thought that early experimentation with heating and mixing of substances over time developed into alchemy.
Neither the words nor the concepts “science” and “nature” were part of the conceptual landscape in the ancient near east. The ancient Mesopotamians used knowledge about the properties of various natural chemicals for manufacturing pottery, faience, glass, soap, metals, lime plaster, and waterproofing; they also studied animal physiology, anatomy, and behavior for divinatory purposes and made extensive records of the movements of astronomical objects for their study of astrology. The Mesopotamians had intense interest in medicine and the earliest medical prescriptions appear in Sumerian during the Third Dynasty of Ur (c. 2112 BCE – c. 2004 BCE). Nonetheless, the Mesopotamians seem to have had little interest in gathering information about the natural world for the mere sake of gathering information and mainly only studied scientific subjects which had obvious practical applications or immediate relevance to their religious system.