Columns Opinion

What is interdisciplinary science?

L S Shashidhara

Of late there is a buzz around interdisciplinary science. Is this something new, or are we turning the clock backwards and trying to do science the way it was done until 19th century?

Science is about understanding the nature and mechanism of the world. Modern science tells us that nature is a continuum of physical world to the chemical world to the biological world. Disciplines such as physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, etc started as the knowledge base expanded and it was necessary to focus on a sub-domain for research purposes. But was dividing science into various disciplines a necessity to teach science in schools and colleges? Currently school kids are taught that Newtonian mechanics is Physics and Darwinian Evolution is biology. This makes them to assume that Newtonian mechanics is not applicable to biological systems or there is nothing to take from Physics/​chemistry/​mathematics to learn/​research evolution. In the context of Indian scenario, a major victim of this compartmentalization is biology. It is never combined with mathematics and very rarely combined with physics and chemistry.

With easy access to knowledge through computers/​internet, one can avoid remembering too much information or too many facts. However, we still need vertical depth in a discipline or even a sub-field within a discipline for doing research. Then how can one practise, so called, interdisciplinary science. Is it feasible? Here is a solution. Teach all school students, science as a single subject. Teach them basic concepts of physics and show them how under certain conditions physical entities interact with each other to give new products (chemistry) and then teach how self-organizing system (biological world) is an extension of earlier two phenomena. At the college level, one may have to teach science with more depth and hence we may have to invoke disciplines. Still all students should learn physics, maths, biology and chemistry not as separate disciplines but as complementary components of science as a whole. Only at the post-graduate level one should start acquiring vertical depth in a discipline or sub-field that is required for research purposes.

This way all students will have some understanding of continuity across all disciplines and more importantly would understand the languages of all disciplines. With better understanding of each others’ languages, collaborations across various disciplines would be more efficient.

Collaborations amongst people with broad knowledge of science as a whole combined with discipline-specific vertical depth and sufficient knowledge of methodology/​terminology used in various disciplines would be a good recipe for pushing the frontiers of science in all directions.