Interdisciplinary research is the need of the moment

Physics and dance. Chemistry and art. Photography and ecology. Let them come together

By Madhura Banerjee
  • Published 10.12.18, 10:35 PM
  • Updated 10.12.18, 10:35 PM
  • 2 mins read
The official poster of the 2005 film, Ice Princess. The Telegraph file picture

The 2005 film, Ice Princess, is about a high school student learning figure skating to help her Physics experiment. She observed young girls gliding and spinning on the ice, then replicated their movements in an attempt to analyse Newton’s second law of motion and derive a formula for angular momentum.

The collaboration between physics and performing arts hasn’t been explored only in fiction. The Charleston Ballet, in their Outreach and Education programme, found common ground between physics and dance in the principles of balance, motion and equilibrium. This led them to conduct dance sessions which translated the language of physics on stage.

Columbia University in the US introduced a course under the English and Comparative Literature department, called “Grid, Fold, Crystal: Poetic Modelling”. According to former student Naureen Ghani, the course explored the intersections between science and poetry. In 1912, artist Piet Modrian had argued that grids led to the evolution of modern art. Professor Rosalind Krauss, who taught the class, dissected a grid into spatial and temporal components, like neuroscientists analyse two-photon excitation microscopy data. The spatial component represented the “autonomy of the realm of art”, while the grid itself represented the 20th century. “Fold” refers to how the universe is in a constant state of folding and unfolding, the way proteins fold and unfold to produce structure. Finally, “Crystal” referred to Robert Smithson’s argument in his essay “The Crystal Land”. In it he says that just like it takes more entropy to maintain a crystal structure than a liquid one, a well-organised piece of writing also takes greater effort than disorganised prose.

Science and arts have been holding hands for a long time now. Art in Chemistry: Chemistry in Art is a book by Barbara R. Greenberg and Dianne Patterson that uses scientific principles to explain the perception of colour by humans. The book employs the concepts of 3D cube, pigments and colour relativity to interpret how human vision and psychology work. In 2016, St Xavier’s College in Calcutta organised an inter-collegiate science festival where one of the events was “Art is Culture”. Participants used inoculating needles to draw on petri dishes of bacteria.

There exists a lot of interdisciplinary research between the different branches of science. Three scientists from the University of Minnesota started the “Snapshot Serengeti” project, which uses infrared sensors to study biodiversity. The team spends half the year in the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania to gather information on carnivore and herbivore coexistence, predator-prey relationships. They monitor the movements of animals in the wild using camera traps triggered by infrared sensors.

Machine learning is one of the biggest technology trends. The idea is for computers to analyse information and act on them the way a human would. Concepts from neuroscience is used to write the algorithm that replicates the human sense of reasoning. Oscar Schwartz, in his TED Talk “Can a computer write poetry?” displayed two verses and asked the audience if they could tell which one was written by a computer. To specify a poetry-writing algorithm for the computer, a knowledge of poetic forms, structures and languages is necessary.

It is common knowledge that the more advanced research becomes, the faster different disciplines fuse together. Various academicians complain, that our education system doesn’t foresee this inevitable merge, and keeps the subjects apart.

Says Arup Kumar Mitra, former head of the Microbiology department at St Xavier’s College in Calcutta, “Interdisciplinary studies have poor applications in the formative stages. It is often discouraged in the present day school system.”

It is time that changed.