The rationale for interdisciplinary studies lies in our observation that, in the world of matter and life, there is no artificial separation of physics, chemistry and biology. As an example, there is now universal recognition that all the sciences need to be employed in understanding man and his relationship with the environment. In the 21st century,therefore, interdisciplinarity is increasingly becoming an important and challenging approach in our understanding of the natural and social worlds. Here, we define interdisciplinary research as the use and integration of both appropriate methods and analytical frameworks drawn from more than one discipline in order to examine specific issues and problems, both fundamental and applied.
Let us consider briefly, as an illustrative example, the concept of noise in science and technology. Noise has traditionally been defined as unwanted variation in the natural sciences and as a truly fundamental engineering problem, particularly in electronic computation and communications sciences, where the focus has always been on reliable optimisation. The discovery of the phenomenon of stochastic resonance in nonlinear dynamics has, however, brought about a shift in our perception of noise. We now realise that, rather than representing a problem, noise plays a basic role in the development and maintenance of life as a system and is also capable of evolution (Wiesenfeld and Moss, Nature, 1995). Noise is not merely a quirk of biological systems, but a core part of how they function and evolve. However, critical questions about the function of noise in gene circuits remain unanswered. First, how does noise originate? Despite our understanding of bursting in bacterial and eukaryotic gene expression, further regulatory layers could, and probably do, have a big impact.
The concept of biological specificity and information theory is another example of one of the most challenging issues in 21st century science. The great evolutionary biologist, George C Williams emphasised how “…genes and proteins of the first cell had to have biological specificity, and specific molecules cannot be formed spontaneously. ……They can only be manufactured by molecular machines, and their production requires entities like sequences and codes that simply do not exist in spontaneous processes. The main distinctive features of living beings are their extreme complexity and…the obvious but still overlooked fact that besides matter and energy, they receive and transmit information, and that life heavily relies on information transfer and conservation.” The specificity of gene expression in different tissues and the hierarchy of gene expression during developmental cascades cannot, however, be explained satisfactorily by Shannon’s information theory framework.
Again, the use of Shannon’s information theory in understanding the overlapping genes in the viruses, φx174 and SV40, is questionable. All life processes can be traced to interactions between molecules. Proteins are some of the most important molecules in this regard, fulfilling essential tasks in each cell, both structural and functional, such as digesting food, making muscles move or regulating development. The interactions between proteins, however, highlights two contradictory aspects. First, as these molecules are three-dimensional objects, the partners should have complementary shapes in order to be able to make effective contact with one another. This requirement was formulated as early as the end of the nineteenth century by Emil Fisher's ‘lock-andkey’theory. In this model, the two molecules with well-defined shapes fit each other, ensuring that the two proteins interact (almost) exclusively with one another. On the other hand, researchers investigating the shape of proteins and its role in their function—that is, structural biologists—have discovered that the shape of proteins can change when they bind with partner molecules, a process called conformational change.
Thus, a protein not only has a well-defined shape but also a limited ability to change it, giving rise to what has been called the ‘dynamic lock and key’ concept. This, however, raises the problem of defining Shannon information using the specificity arising out of the dynamic lock and key concept. Moreover, the semantic aspects of Shannon information constitutes another challenging problem in certain specific contexts, as, for example, in brain function, namely that the brain does not simply process information but also interprets it.
There are two broad approaches in interdisciplinary research.
- It is possible to use the existing tools of mathematics or the laws of physics and chemistry to understand new observations or phenomena in various disciplines, often beyond the physical sciences. Einstein, for example, used the then-existing framework of non-Euclidean geometry to understand the phenomena of gravitation. Quantum probability theory has subsequently been developed as a formalism, an abstract framework devoid of any material content, which can be applied to any branch of knowledge including biology or the social sciences, particularly to model and understand uncertain situations in these various disciplines. The main challenge in this approach is to contextualise, in this case, an abstract framework in order that it may be appropriately applied in that particular discipline.
- In the second approach, it may be possible to study the structure and function of a novel system, and instead of applying an existing law or framework, envisage whether it may be necessary to introduce a new explanatory paradigm. Again, as an example, when Newton was trying to formalise the law of gravitation, it becamenecessary to apply a new kind of mathematics called calculus. In modern-day neuroscience, the most challenging issue that remains is whether subjective experiences or qualia can be appropriately described within the existing paradigm or not. Similarly, detailed examinations of problems in the social sciences may help us decide whether the existing frameworks of the physical science can at all be appropriately applied for their understanding.
In this context, the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS) has decided to establish an inter-institution Forum for Interdisciplinary Research and Studies (FIRST), with two principal aims:
- Invite eminent scholars from various institutes and universities in and around Bengaluru to discuss recent work (their own or of others) in various disciplines that have adopted interdisciplinary approaches. We propose that these meetings be held once a month, on the afternoon of the last Friday of each month, at NIAS
- Build up a virtual library or an electronic archive of interdisciplinary research manuscripts and publications, where it would be possible to upload relevant papers as well as download them, of course, only for academic purposes. We envisage that this archive be housed on the NIAS website
July 14, 2016