Mixing disciplines is clear necessity, but do we need art?

Alfred Nobel was a man of many talents – poetry, science, languages; and no formal education. And as I mentioned in my last post, he would have struggled to qualify for the Lindau meeting where every year winners of his prize gather together.

There are changes afoot with respect to how we determine authority and legitimacy, as I also mentioned in my last post. There is also an accompanying trend when it comes to expertise and specialisation, and it takes two forms: interdisciplinarity and cross disciplinary migration.

As Nobel Laureate Hamilton O. Smith told me earlier this week, “I’ve always felt that you should change your area of research every 12-15 years because you stagnate in a certain area after a while. Not always, but you need to move on. And if you move into another area you can bring new insights into that area.”

That such changes can be successful is attested to not only by Smith’s career. There are numerous other examples; this month journalist Shane Snow launched his book Smartcuts, in which he argues that some of the world’s most successful people – such as the most popular US Presidents – rise up in one discipline, and then hop over to an equivalent height in a completely new field.

64th Lindau NobelLaureate Meeting Lindau, Copyright: DAAD/Nicole Maskus-Trippel
Rolf Zinkernagel at Lindau 2014. Image courtesy of DAAD/ Nicole Maskus-Trippel*

But aside from discipline hopping, there’s also a good deal of collaboration. Rolf Zinkernagel was a surgeon working with vet Peter C Doherty when they discovered how the immune system recognises foreign cells, which led to their 1996 Nobel Prize. According to Zinkernagel, it was important that they came from different fields looking at life, and that they were working with no preconcieved ideas. A similar attitude is taken by the younger scientists at Lindau. Over dinner I spoke to a fascinating psychiatrist who was also working on model brain cell systems to study bipolar disorder and ADD. She told me that in her lab it was of utmost necessity that she work with psychologists, neurologists, imaging specialists, and a bioinformatician, in order to understand the wealth of varied data they’re accruing about the workings of the brain.

But as Angela Michel* of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory told me, interdisciplinary collaboration is pretty much a necessity when you’re working on complex problems – such as their project on the structure and geography of the human gut microbiome. The organisation was designed in the 70s, and run nowadays, to promote conversation and collaboration.

Research in Germany Press Tour 2014

The awesome architecture of EMBL. Image courtesy of DAAD/ Volker Lannert*

Of course, most of these examples, barring Snow’s Smartcuts, relate to interdisciplinarity within science. What about outside? There are some efforts at EMBL, where artists and humanities experts, such as Martin Kemp, have visited and given seminars. Other examples have been thin on the ground this week, though just like Nobel, quite a few Laureates seem to have artistic flair aside from scientific excellence – mostly in the form of musical talents: taken Smith’s piano playing, or Thomas Sudhof’s conviction that he owes his powers of concentration to bassoon playing. Of course, there’s evidence that playing music can make beneficial changes in the brain, possibly because it helps us to live with uncertainty.

photo 2-1

Then there’s Australia’s Physics Nobel Laureate Brian Schmidt, whose skills as a vintner supplied libation to the attendees of the Monday International dinner (courtesy of his home country, see above).  Though he says that the Nobel is good for his wine-making, I have yet to discover whether his wine-making activities have augmented his cosmic research.

The question I’m left asking is, would these eminent scientists gain anything from interactions with artists? Was there anything that could have come out of their having, say, an artist in residence in their lab? As always, we come up against the tricky problem of pinpointing in a concrete fashion the effect that mixing together artists and scientists has on the scientists’ work. However, as I remember Prof Rob Kesseler saying, trained artists are better at spotting patterns and phenomena in visual data than scientists, a statement supported by a number of studies in neuroaesthetics, such as Robert Pepperell’s work on ambiguous images which shows that artists are better at noticing visual subtleties. Artistic skills, just as musical skills, may be beneficial to brain development, and transferrable to progressing areas of science.

*My sincere apologies for having an incomplete photo credit on first publishing this blog. The EMBL representative we met was in fact Angela Michel.

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