In ancient and medieval times, the objective study of nature was known as natural philosophy. In late medieval and early modern times, a philosophical interpretation of nature was gradually replaced by a scientific approach using inductive methodology. The work of Sir Francis Bacon popularized this approach, thereby helping to forge the scientific revolution.Philip Morris Hauser wrote:
The history of the physical sciences is replete with episode after episode in which the discoveries of science, subversive as they were because they undermined existing knowledge, had a hard time achieving acceptability and respectability. Galileo was forced to recant; Bruno was burned at the stake; and so forth.
By the 19th century, the study of science had come into the purview of professionals and institutions. In so doing, it gradually acquired the more modern name of natural science. The term scientist was coined by William Whewell in an 1834 review of Mary Somerville's On the Connexion of the Sciences. But the word did not enter general use until nearly the end of the same century.
Today, natural sciences are more commonly divided into life sciences, such as botany and zoology; and physical sciences, which include physics, chemistry, geology and astronomy.
The natural sciences are branches of science that seek to elucidate the rules that govern the natural world by using scientific methods. The term "natural science" is used to distinguish the subject matter 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 and logic, which use an a priori, as opposed to factual methodology to study formal systems.
The natural sciences seek to understand how the world and universe around us works. There are five major branches: Chemistry (center), astronomy, earth science, physics, and biology (clockwise from top-left).
Natural sciences are the basis for applied sciences. Together, the natural and applied sciences are distinguished from the social sciences on the one hand, and the humanities on the other. Though mathematics, statistics, and computer science are not considered natural sciences, for instance, they provide many tools and frameworks used within the natural sciences.
Alongside this traditional usage, the phrase natural sciences is also sometimes used more narrowly to refer to natural history. In this sense "natural sciences" may refer to the biology and perhaps also the earth sciences, as distinguished from the physical sciences, including astronomy, physics, and chemistry.
Within the natural sciences, the term hard science is sometimes used to describe those subfields which some people view as relying on experimental, quantifiable data or the scientific method and focus on accuracy and objectivity. These usually include physics, chemistry and biology. By contrast, soft science is often used to describe the scientific fields that are more reliant on qualitative research, including the social sciences.