Archive for November, 2009

Of Monopoles and One-Sided Coins

November 21, 2009

A much deplored marvel is the variety of the sciences: we have them as different as chemistry, psychology, and anthropology. But somebody isn’t just a chemist, but, say, an organic chemist, or a sensory psychologist, or a cultural anthropologist. Many problems require an interdisciplinary approach. At least the leader of such a team should be familiar with the various disciplines involved. What kind of education would such a scientific generalist have? According to [1] a difficulty is that one needs to go into different sciences deeply enough to go beyond the subject matter so as to acquire the habits of mind peculiar to each: “These habits, and not the subject matter, are what distinguish the sciences — for how else can we distinguish the chemical physicist from the physical chemist, the mathematical biologist from the biomathematician!”

And all this plays just within science. When we zoom out, we find not just different habits of mind: there is a culture, a temperament that is different. In an interview [2] Herbert Robbins, the mathematician, gave some impressions of the professors he encountered as an undergraduate. One of these was a famous literary critic. He would walk into the classroom with a briefcase full of books and lecture on the poets of the Romantic period. He’d take out a book, read a poem, and then comment on it. This kind of scholarship left Robbins cold. On the other hand, the mathematician Marston Morse deeply impressed him. Although Robbins hardly knew what Morse was talking about, it was clear that this prof “was on fire with creation”.