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Humanist Archives: Aug. 20, 2019, 8:59 a.m. Humanist 33.202 - interdisciplinary reaching?

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 33, No. 202.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                   Hosted by King's Digital Lab
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        Date: 2019-08-19 05:59:03+00:00
        From: Willard McCarty 
        Subject: interdisciplinary inhibitions

In Dublin in 1943, as many here will know, the theoretical physicist
Erwin Schrödinger delivered a series of lectures, "What is Life?", in
which he envisioned unification of all the sciences and argued for an
understanding of biological phenomena from the perspective of physics.
The book from these lectures was hugely influential, but the reasons for
its influence remain puzzling. In 1993 a conference was convened to
celebrate the 50th anniversary of these lectures and puzzle over that
influence. The editors of the book derived from this conference, What is
Life? The Next Fifty Years (Cambridge, 1995), note the criticisms
levelled against Schrödinger's book but comment that,

> these criticisms perhaps miss a major aspect of the uniqueness of
> What is Life?: that a physicist straying from his area of expertise
> into a field not his own could stimulate research. This
> interdisciplinary posing of provocative questions is not usual in
> science and in What is Life? the musings of a physicist have acted as
> an inspiration to subsequent researchers. (p. 3)

Indeed, the "interdisciplinary posing of provocative questions is not
usual in science", though more usual than it was 26 years ago. Even now,
however, even in highly interdisciplinary fields, such as complexity
science, reaches from the natural sciences seem often to get no further
than the social sciences, and then chiefly, if not only, by seeing merely
those whose data and concerns can be quantified. Reaches in the other
direction, from the humanities into such sciences as that of complexity,
struggle to outgrow the frustrated desire to turn their fields of origin
into a quasi-natural sciences. This is not helped by the tendency of so
many in the humanities to break out in spots when any of the natural
sciencs are mentioned.

It seems to be that the problem here is, as Thomas Kuhn wrote in the
first sentence of his Structure of Scientific Revolutions in 1962, "the
image of science by which we are now possessed." Surely this is
something folks in the digital humanities can do something about, or at
least try.



Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/),
Professor emeritus, Department of Digital Humanities, King's College
London; Editor, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews
(www.tandfonline.com/loi/yisr20) and Humanist (www.dhhumanist.org)

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