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March 20, 2013
Thought for the Day, On Interdisciplinary Research
This quote caught my eye fromNature's "Trade Secrets" blog, covering a recent conference. Note that the Prof. Leggett mentioned is a 2003 Nobel physics laureate:
It’s been a recent trend to mix disciplines and hope the results will solve some of science’s stickier problems. But is it possible the pendulum has swung too far? Leggett told the audience the term ‘interdisciplinarity’ is often “abused.”
“I don’t myself feel it is a good thing for government committees and so forth to encourage interdisciplinarity for its own sake. Some of these committees – at least in my experience – seem to be under the impression that interdisciplinarity is a sort of sauce, which you can put on otherwise unpromising ingredients, to improve the whole collection,” Prof. Leggett said. “I don’t really think that is right. The problem with that kind of approach is that sometimes people get the impression that simply to attack a problem in biology for the sake of attacking a problem in biology is itself a virtue.”
It's interesting that Leggett would use biology as an example. There's been a long history of physics/biology crossovers, going back to Schrödinger's What is Life?: and George Gamow's interest in DNA. Francis Crick originally studied physics, and Richard Feynman did very good work on sabbatical in Max Delbrück's lab. (Here's a rundown of these and other connections).
But Leggett does indeed have a good point, one that applies to all sorts of other "magic recipes" for inducing creativity. If we knew how to induce that, we'd have a hell of a lot more of it, has always been my opinion. A lot of great things have come out of the borderlands between two sciences, but just the fact that you're going out into those territories doesn't assure you of a thing.
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