The idea import/export business

 

Interdisciplinary creativity is a two-way street. You may realize that a concept or a methodology, or maybe even just an analogy, from another field can aid in developing an answer to a question in your home field. Conversely, a concept or methodology from your home field may help in answering an open question in another field; the connection you discover might even lead to a new question in that field. Table 1 lists several examples in both directions. In all of these examples, the link discovered between the fields was not obvious and could not have been made by thinking purely within a single discipline. Rather, the creative act of finding the link was made possible by the scientist’s interdisciplinary thinking.

A classic example of importing an idea from another field is the application of the theory of natural selection to the field of cancer. Wilhelm Roux, a German zoologist born in 1850, is best known for his pioneering work in experimental embryology and for the establishment of the first tissue culture. But aside from his focal work on embryology, Roux was fascinated by Charles Darwin’s books on the role of natural selection in the evolution of species. In what can only be considered a great night science moment, it dawned on Roux that natural selection was such a general principle that it should also apply to competition between cells inside the body. Roux published his ideas in his 1881 book, The struggle of parts in the organism; much of his later day science was devoted to testing the general ideas first laid out in the book [33]. It took the mainstream of cancer research over a hundred years to absorb this idea, but as we move further into the twenty-first century, few cancer researchers doubt that the spread of cancer cells is governed by an interplay between mutation and selection. The principles of natural selection have also been applied outside of biology. As early as 1873, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine wrote: “By the principle which Darwin describes as natural selection, short words are gaining the advantage over long words, […] and local idioms are everywhere in disadvantage”—the origin of the idea of memes [32], ideas that spread by manipulating human brains.

Once an idea is generated in one field, it may prove so widely applicable as to lead people from that discipline to insights in disparate fields—see the right side of Table 1. A good example is the application of a suite of network analyses across disciplines, led by Albert-László Barabási. In 1999, Barabási and his then graduate student Réka Albert reported that many networks—the Internet, the citation patterns in science, or the collaboration graph of movie actors—have a peculiar property in common. These networks are “scale free”: at any level of magnification, they contain a few exceedingly popular nodes with many connections, while most other nodes only have a single connection [34]. Searching to fund this work, Barabási explored different calls far beyond the fields he had ever worked in. In his book Linked [21], he describes coming across calls from the DARPA agency on “technologies that will allow the computer networks of the future to be resistant to attacks and continue to provide network services.” The connection between this call and his work was tenuous at best, but applying their approaches to the topic of robustness, Barabási’s team of outsiders to the field of Internet security had an important insight: such networks are very robust to error, yet remarkably vulnerable to attack [35].

 

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For more: check out our piece entitled ‘Renaissance minds in 21st century science

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