For a long time, science was pursued in it’s purest form. If you are a physicist, you would restrict yourself to the realm of tiny particles and abstract concepts (or that’s what it seemed like for most part of my childhood). Similarly, biologists would stick to the fields of medicine and/or studying life forms. Chemists would work with chemicals. Fields like ecology, economics, psychology, music, were no different. People have, for most part of our history (oh yes, history too!), have stuck to the study and advancement of their fields.
But is that enough? Today, most of the pure fields have been saturated. There have been few great advances in the field of physics since the Big Bang Theory that has captured the imagination of millions. Economics is nothing but stale, run on ideas from thinkers who lived centuries ago. The world has reached a stage where only so much can done with one thing. We need to innovate. How can we do that?
Douglas Kruger explains this idea beautifully in “Relentlessly Relevant: 50 ways to innovate”. He says that for innovation, you need to mix two things that already exist together. He spoke with the imagery of a pyramid; ideas are like blocks building up a pyramid. There are no “brand new” ideas; an idea comes on the back of two (or more) other ideas from before, just like two blocks are used as support to place a third block at the top.
The idea of innovation in scientific studies is not new; scientific theories that have emerged till now have been innovations in a way. But in today’s world, this holds even more importance. Problems like climate change, environmental degradation, disease-epidemics, unstable economic times, space research and dreams of colonizing other planets cannot be realized if people remain stuck in the same field. We need to create that pyramid; bring two ideas together to build a third one which will be the solution to our problems.
That is where interdisciplinary work comes in. The term interdisciplinary means the integration of ideas from different fields of study, in order to achieve a specific purpose. Common examples are geophysics, urban ecology, physical oceanography, etc. This term also includes terms like “transdisciplinary” and “crossdisciplinary”. However, the crux of the matter remains the same; use many blocks to build on and extend the pyramid.
Climate change is probably the best example for the need of interdisciplinary studies. It is an issue that pans the length and breadth of human society. It affects the climate. It affects the life of people from the richest to the poorest of the world. It is affected by our lifestyle, and in turn it affects our way of life. It impacts the food we eat and the water we drink. It massively impacts other life forms, organisms that cannot think and perceive this change as we do. It affects and often even shapes our policies. If you think about it, it is a topic that also have a philosophical edge to it. A problem like this needs attention with a combination of climate scientists, ecologists, conservationists, policy makers, anthropologists, agriculturists, architects, food experts, industrialists, to name a few. It is through the contribution of all of these fields that we can truly produce an applicable and integrated solution.
The biggest advantage of interdisciplinary studies is the ability to make connections that previously were thought to be non-existent. My sister, for example, is studying dance therapy. People have always danced to feel good; but who knew that dance could be just as effective as popping pills to cure someone of an illness? These connections help us come up with new solutions. Some dancers have taken this idea of dance therapy to help children with autism.
It helps us perceive topics from a new perspective. Often, a pure scientist is stuck in his own topic, and when you run into a dead end, you don’t know what to do. Having an interest and knowledge of other fields can help you see your field from a different light and find a solution or a new application. Having knowledge of history, for example, will help you understand how things have changed from the past till today. If you integrate it with the environment, you will realize the path that the world has taken to reach this environmental crisis it has today. You will also realize that the problems we face are nothing new; they just differ in magnitude. These problems have been solved before. All it takes is an interest in finding out how our forefathers did it. It is one of the reasons why I am fascinated by this subject, and I have dedicated a whole category on my blog for it.
In the end, interdisciplinary studies bring a breath of fresh air to our problem-ridden world. It shows subjects in a new light. It forces us to critically evaluate issues from a new angle.
Today, we are heading towards a mixed world. From studying politics through literature to tackling illegal animal trade through genetic studies, mixtures are popping up everywhere. The same is true for science and technology. I recently read of the world’s smallest speakers being developed by scientists from the Indian Institute of Science. The inspiration? Crickets.
The mixture, on the whole is a good one. While conservative thinkers may consider it as a dark mark on the purity of their subjects, we need interdisciplinary work to keep ourselves abreast with the current times as scientists. I’m doing it too. I’m studying and working in the field of environmental management with a background in geology and a keen interest in public speaking and writing. There are many others who have embraced this new culture.
Interdisciplinary studies, however, does not mean that you ignore your core field. It is important to know at least one subject well in order to make connections from other fields to it. Otherwise, you are just a Jack of all trades; knowing a lot of things but achieving nothing.
If you are a scientist, I strongly recommend this approach for your future. If you are in any other field, stay open to inspiration from other fields. You never know where a block might fall from. It could be the missing piece you needed to build that pyramid of yours!
I’ve also written about the application of environmental science in planetary exploration. It is another example of interdisciplinary studies, written with more depth. Do check it out!