Geography as a Science

Exploring the Discipline of Geography as a Science

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Many secondary education institutions, particularly in the United States, include very minimal study of geography. They opt instead for separation and focus of many individual cultural and physical sciences, such as history, anthropology, geology, and biology, which are encompassed within the realms of both cultural geography and physical geography.

History of Geography

The trend to ignore geography in classrooms does seem to be slowly changing, though.

Universities are starting to recognize more the value of geographic study and training and thus provide more classes and degree opportunities. However, there is still a long way to go before geography is widely recognized by all as a true, individual, and progressive science. This article will briefly cover parts of the history of geography, important discoveries, uses of the discipline today, and the methods, models, and technologies that geography uses, providing evidence that geography qualifies as a valuable science.

The discipline of geography is among the most ancient of all sciences, possibly even the oldest because it seeks to answer some of man’s most primitive questions. Geography was recognized anciently as a scholarly subject, and can be traced back to Eratosthenes, a Greek scholar who lived around 276-196 B.C.E. and who is often called, “the father of geography.” Eratosthenes was able to estimate the circumference of the earth with relative accuracy, using the angles of shadows, the distance between two cities, and a mathematical formula.

Claudius Ptolemaeus: Roman Scholar and Ancient Geographer

Another important ancient geographer was Ptolemy, or Claudius Ptolemaeus, a Roman scholar who lived from about 90-170 C.E. Ptolemy is best known for his writings, the Almagest (about astronomy and geometry), the Tetrabiblos (about astrology), and the Geography – which significantly advanced geographic understanding at that time.

Geography used the first ever recorded grid coordinates, longitude and latitude, discussed the important notion that a three dimensional shape such as the earth could not be perfectly represented on a two dimensional plane, and provided a large array of maps and pictures. Ptolemy’s work was not as accurate as today’s calculations, mostly due to inaccurate distances from place to place. His work influenced many cartographers and geographers after it was rediscovered during the Renaissance.

Alexander von Humboldt: Father of Modern Geography

Alexander von Humboldt, a German traveler, scientist, and geographer from 1769-1859, is commonly known as the “father of modern geography.” Von Humboldt contributed discoveries such as magnetic declination, permafrost, continentality, and created hundreds of detailed maps from his extensive traveling – including his own invention, isotherm maps (maps with isolines representing points of equal temperature). His greatest work, Kosmos, is a compilation of his knowledge about the earth and its relationship with humans and the universe – and remains one of the most important geographical works in the history of the discipline.

Without Eratosthenes, Ptolemy, von Humboldt, and many other important geographers, important and essential discoveries, world exploration and expansion, and advancing technologies would not have taken place.

Through their use of mathematics, observation, exploration, and research, mankind has been able to experience progress and see the world, in ways unimaginable to early man.

Science in Geography

Modern geography, as well as many of the great, early geographers, adheres to the scientific method and pursues scientific principles and logic. Many important geographic discoveries and inventions were brought forth through complex understanding of the earth, its shape, size, rotation, and the mathematical equations that utilize that understanding. Discoveries like the compass, north and south poles, the earth’s magnetism, latitude and longitude, rotation and revolution, projections and maps, globes, and more modernly, geographic information systems (GIS), global positioning systems (GPS), and remote sensing – all come from rigorous study and a complex understanding of the earth, its resources, and mathematics.

Today we use and teach geography much as we have for centuries. We often use simple maps, compasses and globes, and learn about the physical and cultural geography of different regions of the world. But today we also use and teach geography in very different ways as well. We are a world that is increasingly digital and computerized. Geography is not unlike other sciences that have broken into that realm to advance our understanding of the world. We not only possess digital maps and compasses, but GIS and remote sensing allows for understanding of the earth, the atmosphere, its regions, its different elements and processes, and how it can all relate to humans.

Jerome E. Dobson, president of the American Geographical Society writes (in his article Through the Macroscope: Geography's View of the World) that these modern geographic tools “constitute a macroscope that allows scientists, practitioners, and the public alike to view the earth as never before.” Dobson argues that geographic tools allow for scientific advancement, and therefore geography deserves a place among the fundamental sciences, but more importantly, it deserves more of a role in education.

Recognizing geography as a valuable science, and studying and utilizing progressive geographical tools, will allow for many more scientific discoveries in our world