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What is phenomenon?

A phenomenon, in a scientific context, is something that is observed to occur or to exist. It is simply a fact or event that can be observed with the senses, either directly or using equipment such as microscopes or telescopes. This meaning of phenomenon contrasts with the understanding of the word in general usage. In popular vernacular, a phenomena is a person, thing or event considered to be in some way extraordinary or outstanding, such as Elvis, Beatlemania, Pac-Man or the Harry Potter books.

Phenomenon across science

The word phenomenon is used across a range of scientific disciplines when referring to observable events, as in the following examples:

  • Immanuel Kant popularized the word phenomenon in philosophic circles when he contrasted it with the noumenon, something whose existence can be conceived through reason but cannot be perceived through the senses like phenomena. Noumena represent the reality underlying the phenomena that can only be observed through the senses.
  • Natural phenomena are those that occur or manifest without human input. Examples of natural phenomena include gravity, tides, moons, planets, volcanic lightning, starling swarms, ant armies, sandstorms, biological processes and oscillation, and countless other events.
  • Social phenomena are those that occur or exist through the actions of groups of humans. Six degrees of separation, for example, is a phenomenon that is demonstrated in social networking.
  • Another example is the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, a historical social phenomena whose roots go back to centuries of racism and systematic oppression.
  • Psychological phenomena are those manifested in human behaviors and responses. The sunk cost effect, for instance, is the tendency for humans to continue investing in something that clearly isn't working. Another psychological phenomenon, the Hawthorne effect, is demonstrated by an improvement in human behavior or performance as a result of increased attention from superiors, clients or colleagues.
  • Visual phenomena include optical illusions, such as the peripheral drift illusion in which people perceive movement in static images like Kitaoka Akiyoshi's rotating snakes. A mirage is another example of an optical phenomenon.

The word phenomenon is derived from the Greek verb phainein, which means to show, shine, appear, to manifest or to be manifest. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word first appeared in English in the 1570s and was thought to mean "a fact directly observed, a thing that appears or is perceived, an occurrence." It wasn't until 200 years later that the word started to be used to mean an extraordinary event.

This was last updated in August 2022

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