If life were other, if we weren’t all ‘wfh’ and trying to stay sane as well as productive, today I would be putting the finishing touches to a talk I was due to give at the end of the week to graduate students at another university. Being the kind of person who always worries I’ll be struck down by an incapacitating migraine at the wrong moment, I tend not to leave talk-writing to the 11th hour/ on the train. So, I should currently be putting together ideas about the joys and challenges of interdisciplinary science.
Interdisciplinary science is of course nothing new. The scientists of previous centuries cared nothing for what we now term disciplines. Thomas Young (1773-1829) will be most familiar to the average physicist because of his eponymous experiment, Young’s slits, or – if more mechanically minded – the elastic modulus bearing his name. He was, however, a not very successful physician who got interested in vision and hence started thinking about the wave-like nature of light. He also – just to prove he really was a polymath who simply didn’t identify an arts-science divide – had a hand in decoding the Rosetta Stone, being an excellent linguist. Not for nothing was a biography of him by Andrew Robinson entitled ‘The Last Man who Knew Everything‘.
However, by the time we got to the mid-late Victorian age, disciplines and dividing lines started to appear in society and in education. The battles between Thomas Huxley and Matthew Arnold pitted science against arts as to what should be taught in schools. Universities started creating new streams; at least Cambridge opted (1851) for the still-going-strong Tripos of Natural Sciences, keeping breadth in sciences, sometimes requiring a bit more too. (My memory is that in Chemistry – although not my own subject of Physics – graduate students of my day had to learn a smattering of German, because that was still regarded as the language of Chemistry research. No more.)
The wonderful thing about the Natural Sciences Tripos – which in hindsight I deeply regret I did not avail myself of – was the opportunity not to decide irrevocably upon entry that ‘you were a physicist’ or even that ‘you were a physical scientist’. The option of combining physics with some biology was there, and still is. Ultimately specialisation is required, but at least you can attempt subjects not available (typically) at A level, such as Earth Sciences or Materials Science, in your first year as well as the ‘obvious’ ones. Three subjects plus maths make up the first year and each year students narrow down their choices reaching specialisation in years 3 and 4. Contrary to what I used to believe when Physics was a 3 year course in the Tripos, the word Tripos does not imply a three part/three year programme (and for ‘clarity’ within the Cambridge system, the three parts were Parts IA, IB and II, now followed by a fourth year Part III); it instead, allegedly, refers to the three-legged stool candidates historically sat on for their end-of-degree viva.
I digress, as seems to be an inevitable part of failing to concentrate properly during lockdown. Interdisciplinarity is now back in ‘fashion’, if I can phrase it like that. My early forays into working on biological material within a Physics department were frowned upon, explicitly and fairly depressingly vociferously – this was in the ‘80s. But, of course, working at the interface with biology is now seen as entirely mainstream, even if how – for instance – to assess any such interdisciplinary working within the (paused) REF remains an issue for some. I would like to think the work of the Interdisciplinary Advisory Panel that I chair may have put some people’s minds at rest, but I know full well not everyone will be satisfied or reassured.
For a new research student, however, deciding how interdisciplinary to be can be an understandable worry. If you have an eye on a future academic career, is it better to stick with the straight and narrow rather than run the risk of being a jack-of-all-trades? I would recommend you follow your passion. If working on very detailed pure research in a narrow area excites you go for it, but if you like seeing connections where none have been spotted before, if your niche sits at the junction of different fields – labelled by discipline simply by virtue of the way subjects are taught at undergraduate level, as often as not, – then you should not be afraid to tackle it.
In a typically snide remark from Jim Watson about Rosalind Franklin (in a paper in Nature in 1983), he points to her ‘monodisciplinary’ approach to science as what held her back. “Rosalind Franklin was a very intelligent woman, but she really had no reason for believing that DNA was particularly important. She was trained in physical chemistry. I don’t think she’d ever spent any length of time with people who thought DNA was important. And she certainly didn’t talk to Maurice [Wilkins] or to John Randall, then the professor at Kings.”
One doesn’t have to agree with his attitude to her in particular, or women in general, to recognize that a narrow viewpoint can hold back progress in research. The person who thinks outside a disciplinary box, may just be the one who wins – as is very obviously the outcome in this case – the prize, Nobel or otherwise. Watson started off with a Zoology degree, but by working with Francis Crick – a physicist who was meant to be studying the X-ray diffraction of proteins and polypeptides – simply because he chose to (sometimes to the annoyance of Crick’s head of the Cavendish Laboratory, Lawrence Bragg), the ultimate breakthrough in analysing DNA was possible.
So, had I been preparing my talk today, instead of blogging, I would be concluding by emphasising the joy, importance and relevance of moving beyond traditional bounds of discipline. We need researchers of every variety to make progress, something as true and as urgent now in the coronavirus era as ever. Epidemiologists need to work with immunologists, mathematic modellers with structural biologists, physicists with vets. We are, quite literally, all in this together.