Sunday, August 4, 2013

1. Interdisciplinarity is a buzzword in science, but how modern is it?

Everywhere you look, it seems that we are talking about new paradigms in science. Among the various disruptive forces, "interdisciplinarity" (or perhaps we should call it multidisciplinarity?) appears to be ever present. It certainly seems modern to be thinking about the breaking down of disciplines. Presumably, our students must learn new tools from each of the disciplines and thereby advance science in ways that the current dogma cannot. But would you be surprised if I were to bring up such a movement from the 1800's? How modern would that be?! Or perhaps, the current movements are actually post-modern in the sense that interdisciplinary sciences are a return to the beginning when science was but a single unified whole?

In the (post)modern science at the turn of the 21st century, the fundamental problems confronting us appear to require a new breed of scientist: interdisciplinary scientists who act as connectors between distant fields. Examples include so-called energy scientists, environmental scientists and data scientists. It has also driven the construction of institutes or buildings, such as the Molecular Sciences and Engineering Building where I work at Georgia Tech, that collocates students and practitioners in order to advance interdisciplinary research. The story of the development of physical chemistry coined around 1752 by Mikhail Lomonosov and taking root in the late 19th century doesn't diminish the value of these recent interdisciplinary threads in science. Rather, it is but one of the many examples in which the development of ties between existing disciplines—chemistry and physics in the case of physical chemistry—has led to major advances in the sciences. Thus interdisciplinary sciences are not a modern fad. History tells us that their growth has been a critical part of the practice of advancing science all along. In a short series of posts, I plan to summarize how the development of this emergent field had dramatic impacts on the practice of its science.

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