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Outside the Comfort Zone

July 15, 2013

I still remember a decades' old cartoon, probably from The New Yorker, that repository of contemporary philosophy in cartoon, sound-bite format. Since I'm a materials scientist, it's probably its reference to aluminum that bonded it to my brain. Two older men are having cocktails, and one is telling the other,
"I've learned a lot in my life. Unfortunately, all of it is about aluminum."
In the past, a scholar could devote his entire life to one particular subject area. There's the saying that a specialist is someone who knows more and more about less and less. Today, especially in science and technology, it's impossible to make a career by burying your head in a single book. You need to transcend your comfort zone. As a single example, every scientist, no matter what the discipline, needs to be adept at statistics and a master of his desktop computer.

When members of one traditional discipline apply their knowledge to solving problems in another, you often get a great advance in technology. I've written two articles about novel DNA sequencing technologies invented by physicists, computer scientists and electrical engineers to advance genetics (Full Genome Sequencing, June 7, 2012 and DNA Analysis, September 17, 2010).

One interesting example of interdisciplinary work is the research on the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event, also known as the K-T extinction event, by the father and son team of Luis Alvarez, a Nobel Laureate in physics for his work on subatomic particle detection, and his son Walter Alvarez, a geologist. Also involved were the chemists, Frank Asaro and Helen Michel.

Luis and Walter Alvarez

Luis (left) and Walter Alvarez.

In a previous article (Near Earth Asteroids, October 5, 2011), I wrote about Frank Asaro's recollection of the father-son team asking for an iridium analysis as a favor.

Said Asaro, "There was no funding for these measurements, so we had to squeeze them in with our other work."

(Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory photograph, via Wikipedia.)

This interdisciplinary team found that the sedimentary layer laid down at the time of this extinction event was enriched in iridium, which is rare in Earth's crust, since it's soluble in iron and has become part of Earth's core. Crustal sources of iridium are asteroids which have impacted Earth as meteorites. Their hypothesis is that this extinction of the dinosaurs and concurrent species was caused by the impact of a large asteroid. Recent evidence indicates that the impact may have occurred in the Yucatán Peninsula, near Chicxulub.

My own specialty of materials science combines the fields of physics, chemistry and engineering. Nanotechnology can be considered the poster child for interdisciplinary research in the physical sciences. The American Chemical Society has published its nanotechnology journal, ACS Nano, since 2007; and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers has published The IEEE Transactions on Nanotechnology since 2002.

Although it can be argued that the science of nanotechnology started with physicist Richard Feynman's 1959 lecture, "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom," neither the American Physical Society, nor the American Institute of Physics, have topical journals on nanotechnology. Such articles are divided among their many physics journals. Commercial publishers jumped into nanotechnology publication very early on, and a search will reveal many titles.

Richard Feynman

A nano image of a macro character. Everyone uses this photograph from Feynman's Manhattan Project ID badge, since there are licensing issues with all other images.[2]

(Via Wikimedia Commons.)

Another area enjoying input from many scientific specialties is environmental science. Scientists from many different disciplines are addressing the important issues of global warming and the increased atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide. Atmospheric carbon dioxide has just reached 400 parts per million, which is probably the highest level in the past three million years.[1]

Space scientists employ remote monitoring of Earth's environment by satellites; physicists and electrical engineers are developing techniques to harvest energy from renewable resources; and chemists are researching methods for carbon sequestration. Electrical engineers, such as Charles Steinmetz and Nikola Tesla entered this game very early with their work on hydroelectric power.

I'll conclude by mentioning the necessity of lifelong learning for scientists. The Red Queen Effect is as active as ever in the sciences. Said the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll's "Through the Looking-Glass,"
"Now, HERE, you see, it takes all the running YOU can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that."[3]
Alice Liddell

Lewis Carroll was the pen name of mathematician, Charles Dodgson (1832 - 1898). Dodgson was also one of the first photographers, and his photos demonstrated amazing technical perfection for his time. His subjects included Michael Faraday and Alice Liddell (shown), the inspiration for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

This 1858 photograph of Alice as a beggar-maid was published in Dodgson's 1898 biography, "The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll," by his nephew, Stuart Dodgson Collingwood.

(Photo by Charles Dodgson, via Wikimedia Commons.)


  1. Robert Kunzig, "Climate Milestone: Earth's CO2 Level Passes 400 ppm," National Geographic News, May 9, 2013.
  2. In my 2011 communication with the Archives and Special Collections department of the California Institute of Technology, I found that the Feynman heirs claim rights to the name and likeness of Feynman, based on celebrity rights. I can send the contact information for the licensing agent to interested individuals.
  3. Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson), "Through the Looking-Glass," The Millennium Fulcrum Edition 1.7, via Project Gutenberg.

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