As the impending doom of real life draws closer and the prospect of a working week fills myself and my friends’ boots with terror, it’s interesting to watch the way people pigeon-hole themselves, attempting to categorise the type of person they are, or want to become. At university, this results, perfectly naturally, in identifying with people studying the same subject, but tribalism among students is only getting worse. From philosophers arguing that no other subject can bestow the virtues of a critical mind quite like theirs, to business students convinced that market knowledge is all you need in the world, baiting other courses is an enjoyable pass-time. Being no stranger to this myself and all too frequently venting my true feelings on the world’s inadequacies, I thought the phenomenon deserved a few words.
For me, there has been segregation between the sciences for as long as I can remember. Even in the glory days of year seven, when no-one knew precisely what girls were and shocking news consisted of who was Sitting Next to Each Other On the Bus, physics, chemistry and biology were taken separately. This makes a lot of sense at a twelve-year-old’s level; most of the concepts covered tend to be easily defined by one of the three subjects (or, alternatively, the two subjects PHYSICS and STAMP-COLLECTING if you happen to be Ernest Rutherford). As more is understood about the sciences, this simple picture of three discrete disciplines is no longer relevant. DNA is a good place to look at this blurring of boundaries. Due to its role in the evolution of living creatures, it seems to obviously belong in the realm of biology, but describing its molecular nature and properties requires chemistry and its helical structure was discovered by physicists.
Look at a group of science undergraduates though, and you wouldn’t believe there was such a smooth mixing of the subjects. Despite many of my friends being natural scientists (meaning they can drift between different science modules throughout their degree), there is still an overwhelming sense that they belong to one of the major streams and as such, it’s still common to overhear complaints of biologists’ lack of work or the arrogance of physicists when they talk about how important their work is.
While this is usually just harmless chat (or harmless cat, in this case), in the long term, it is detrimental, both to science itself and its audience. In a time where the boundaries of neuroscience are giving us glimpses of an astounding future for the human race and physicists just keep on threatening to come up with grand unifying theories*, cooperation is the only way we’re actually going to progress on, and maybe off, this watery rock. Some of the most exciting advancements in science and technology are appearing at the boundaries and it would be a terrible loss if these were to be neglected due to squabbling and infighting. Additionally, it’s hard to see how scientists wouldn’t lose favour with the public if they were solely seen to bicker amongst themselves. It must be remembered how much research is dependent on the public’s purse and how quickly funding could dry up if pushed.
When I discovered the level of mixing between disciplines at the ILL, and in fact between all the scientific groups at the Polygone Scientifique in Grenoble, I was very happy but not a little intimidated; acorns have grown into huge oak trees, mountains have been worn down to sand (etc., etc.) since I last looked at a textbook that wasn’t related to physics. Yet I found myself working with a mathematician, in a building with biologists trying to produce samples of DNA using what looks awfully like a chemistry set-up.
A more in depth explanation of just what the hell I’m doing at the institute will appear in the near future, but for now, suffice to say that I’ve sat and watched a cylinder rotating for far too many hours on a regular basis.
While this integration hasn’t yet led me to flee from the warm embrace of physics, it has given me a much-needed perspective on how science operates en masse as well as an appreciation of those who do this for a living.
*This is often followed by scientists in varying degrees of irritation explaining exactly why said theory will not live up to expectations. An excellent dissection of the last attempt can be found here: http://telescoper.wordpress.com/2013/05/29/the-curious-case-of-weinsteins-theory/