How scientists are prone to pigeonholing, stunting collaboration and atomistic problem solving.
A personal commentary by Tina Koutouleas
What is the universe made of? How did life begin? Are we alone in the universe? What makes us human? Can computers keep getting faster? What is consciousness? These are some of the Big Questions we cannot yet answer as mankind. These questions got me wondering whether we, as scientists, are pigeonholing our knowledge by creating and working in niche scientific fields, without regard for our neighbouring sciences.
I cringe at the idea of mixing chemicals in a lab to prove something to the world and anytime I look at the periodic table or a physics equation, I convulse violently.
An area of science which you may have not heard of is “the origin of life on earth” or abiogenesis. This field examines how cell-based life forms came about in the early pre-life. A fascinating field that no doubt attracts lots of smarties to get their brain juices flowing over the complex geophysics, chemistry and biology and have led us to where we are today… alive! I am writing about this topic as just this month, Science published an article which de-bunked a long-standing hypothesis relating to whether RNA and DNA co-existed on earth in pre-life times. The ‘RNA World’ hypothesis suggests that early life forms were based purely on RNA, and only later evolved to make and use DNA. It has been around since the 1960’s and had lots of traction up until chemistry associate professor, Ramanarayanan Krishnamurthy and his lab at the Scripps Research Institute published results showing evidence that RNA and DNA was most likely co-existing in the first life forms. While these findings in synthetic chemistry are no doubt of great interest, the lack of absolute sureness of this big research question got me pondering about how little we may actually know about complex areas of science on a whole. I wondered, if it was due to our constant need to categorise problems into research disciplines i.e. this is clearly a chemistry problem – so go forth and synthesize simple sugars and nucleic acids to see what we find!
Today we are trained to specialise and master a small niche of science rather than engulf several areas into our scientia.
I myself am a biologist, so am prone to the atomistic approach to life, the universe and well, everything. I love phylogenetic trees, using Latin names for things and memorising molecular pathways. I cringe at the idea of mixing chemicals in a lab to prove something to the world and anytime I look at the periodic table or a physics equation, I convulse violently. Therefore, I am writing this as a kind of therapeutic approach to cleanse my academically trained prejudice and think more holistically on big problems. If I lived 150 years ago, I would be considered a Natural Scientist, which was a bundle of sciences consisting of astronomy, biology, chemistry and physics. Probably due to my gender, I would have worked as an assistant or a scientist whose name was never uttered in relation to the research I slaved over. But that aside, I would have probably worked alongside a body of people that included more than just my biology folk.
Today we are trained to specialise and master a small niche of science rather than engulf several areas into our scientia (latin for knowledge). If you search for scientists by field, you will see that there is an abundance of words, which you can put in front of the word “scientist”. Antarctic scientists, planetary scientists, material scientists, data scientist, molecular scientist… the list goes on and on and on. This creates a kind of divide and conquer approach to knowledge acquisition and perhaps that has worked well over time in piecing together the ginormous puzzle of life. But what about the fundamental questions which we are still far from answering… such as how did life originate on earth? Are there other intelligent forms of life in the universe? Will artificial intelligence out-smart us all?
We can stop the atomistic tendencies, which lend themselves to nook and cranny-science.
Stephen Hawking’s last book (literally published beyond the grave – how cool is that?) is an eclectic collection of “brief answers to the big questions”. In his opening chapter titled: “why we must ask the big questions” he states that he is a scientist with a deep fascination for physics, cosmology, the universe and the future of humanity. Formally trained as a Cosmologist, Hawking was able to eloquently, and effortlessly formulate theories around not only the mysteries of black holes but climate change, nuclear war and artificial intelligence. I know what you are thinking… Stephen Hawking was a household name for pure genius and the most renowned scientist since Einstein, so of course he can detail ponderings about complex areas outside of his immediate research field. But my point in highlighting his book is that nothing is stopping us all from approaching our own research fields with the same curiosity and holistic thinking as Hawking took to answer the big questions. We can stop going to the usual conferences year after year. We can stop the atomistic tendencies, which lend themselves to nook and cranny-science. We can take the elevator to a different floor of our university buildings, pop our head into a random department office and ask what they are doing with all their time, resources and grant funding. We can support multidisciplinary collaboration to solve research problems and make use of our non-peers’ skillsets, expertise and mind-sets. We can borrow methodologies from other research fields to apply them to our own. We can try to approach our science in a nonpartisan manner and create new modus for our inquiries. All this is possible if we each day look outward to the world, even if our research is forcing us to zoom in on the tiniest yocto scale.
About the author: Tina Koutouleas is a citizen of the world, plant lover, biologist and eternal optimist who is pumped to be a part of the REBBLS core team.
Picture credits (in order of appearance)
- The far side by Gary Larson http://www.classicufo.com/blog/2013/02/more-gary-larson/
- Science Fried Art https://www.calpaclab.com/science-jokes/