Interdisciplinarianism - In and Out of School

William O. Baker

April 16, 1962

[Presented at ARPA meeting at the University of Pennsylvania.]


Interdisciplinarianism is not actually a substitute for dialectical materialism. However, it may be one of the most effective answers we have so far (to the cogent matters of coexistence and survival which are implied).

Faraday, apparently, did not find interdisciplinarianism awkward, and coped easily with laying foundations of electricity and magnetism, of organic chemistry, of electrochemistry and of certain elements of mechanics. Indeed, it can be imagined that the versatility of the natural philosophers of roughly a century and a third ago caused the progress and enrichment in physical science which subsequently produced the disciplinary barriers and specific academic organizations which are predominant today. It could be guessed that if Faraday and Berzelius and Carnot and Bunsen had not been interdisciplinarians we should have seen less of the triumphs and vigor of physical science and of its applications than we have today. However, it is stirring to trace from the early quarter of the last century how atomic physics through Röntgen and J. J. Thomson, and optics through Morley and Bunsen and Planck, and thermodynamics through Helmholtz and Arrhenius and Nernst, and structural and organic chemistry through Kolbe and Wurtz and Baeyer and Fischer, - how these brave men laid out the vast domains which have been settled, civilized and even overpopulated up through the middle of the twentieth century.

Actually, it seemed to be about the beginning of this century when the ideas, the techniques and the facilities for the advance of physical science appeared to be growing narrowly specialized. Then, academic departments and, most importantly, leading scholars in the fields drifted away from working and talking and planning together. In 1901, Planck's introduction of the quantum theory seemed nicely relevant for the work of Rutherford and Soddy on atomic structure the next year. But it was widely remote from Willstätter's impending isolation of chlorophyll and elucidation of its function - chlorophyll whose quantum electronics are now one of the major puzzles and promises of our science. By the time that Bohr came along with J. J. Thomson and Moseley in the 1910-1920 period, Nernst, as interpreted by Lewis and Randall and influenced by the techniques of Sörenson for ionic solutions, already had a stranglehold on physical chemistry, Much of the rest of chemistry was firmly oriented toward the elucidation of the structure of natural products, such as the work of Levine and Jones on the nucleic acids, those very polymers whose claim to being nuclear seems to be as the nucleus for the construction of life, and to whose presence in solid state science we shall often return. By 1920, Ruzicka and Butenandt had identified hormones, to whose effects the human race is still, frantically, if enjoyably, adjusting. Above all, the outlines of that fragrant realm, synthetic organic chemistry, were being drawn - a stereoscopic vision which many of us have been privileged to glimpse, even if from afar, or through a flask, darkly.

Thus, we cite some mighty epochs in the evolution of physical science. These were attained in ways that could have caused nothing less than the compartmentation and disciplinarianism from which we now strive to liberate ourselves to prepare for the next epochs. It is important to recall the power of the personalities and of the convictions which attended this ascent into the Golden Age of science and technology. There were good intellectual foundations for the belief that one could not easily mix these sciences during their period of rapid growth. This is well represented by the reaction of Lord Rutherford in a visit to our Laboratories in the early 1930’s. He had consented to tell our physical research seminar about his latest ideas in the transmutation of the elements and the significance of the work of Chadwick in manipulating a curiously diffident component of the nucleus called the neutron. Perhaps in a spirit of fun, and partly in a sense of the future impermanency of ideas about atomic structure and stability, one of my colleagues asked Rutherford for his views of recent claims in German literature that a chemist named Merck had accomplished an elementary transmutation into gold. Rutherford professed incomplete knowledge of the experiment but drew himself into the only slightly suborbital dignity of a Cambridge professor and said: “Whatever the circumstances may be, I think it extremely unlikely that this could have been achieved by a mere pharmaceutical chemist.” One needs only to mutter in conclusion that Rutherford was probably right, that his general premise was probably wrong, and that in the meantime pharmaceutical chemists have converted almost everything into a kind of gold one time or another, to the great benefit and comfort of the human race.

Now almost everyone admires the ways that the separate disciplines of mathematics and physics and chemistry, biology and the various kinds of engineering associated with these subjects have succeeded. There are just little touches of discomfort or uneasiness here and there. Engineering is, of course, that generously practical realm wherein the radiance of new knowledge, of discovery and of understanding, is absorbed on behalf of the wellbeing and progress of man. How about the persistent decline in enthusiasm of new generations to study engineering, to continue to make it the broad foundation for economics, security and humane progress that it provided in the growth of our country?

How about the pressing questions of how to cope with the torrent of scientific and technical literature, by which is threatened the classic precept that scientific research means novelty, and not the redoing of things? Indeed, even the principle that science is accumulated wisdom is in jeopardy here.

How about the disquieting social and political pressures that even the scientists themselves feel, and that are certainly discussed widely, about how to make the big choices that big science forces to be made?

You here know the figures and facts which lie back of these issues and concerns. You have seen Professor Desallo Price’s pictures of how, at present growth rates, everybody will be working soon, in science and engineering, spending full time scanning the journals, abstracts and Physical Review Letters, whose mere printing will have deforested the continent.

So now we have seen some past and present aspects of science that prompt us to see why some things have to be done and some are being done. A movement toward interdisciplinarianism, in and out of school, is paramount among these.

Let us first examine the general pattern of present action on the structure and support of interdisciplinary science which is very largely embodied in the National Materials Program. (We could perhaps cite the National Space Program as interdisciplinary, too, but the discipline seems to be turned on the taxpayer and the orbiting primates and is, accordingly, of different character than we are here describing. ) It is obvious to most of this assembly that limitations in the science and technology of materials were prominent among the major issues that injected science deeply into national policy. While this junction of science and government had come from a progression of events beginning perhaps in Benjamin Franklin's time, it was dramatized by the era of nuclear weapons and nuclear energy of the 1940's and then climaxed by the missile and space challenges of the fateful October of 1957. Now as each of the classes of national needs came up, i.e., economic nuclear power reactors, high thrust rockets, supersonic aircraft, reliable space vehicles, a diversity of efforts emerged to mobilize our resources. The AEC, the NASA, the National Institutes of Health, the Advanced Research Projects Agency and many others, were the responses of our society to these technical demands and also the responses to exploit the technical discoveries of the particular times. In each case, the response to the demands, and the exploitation of the discovery were limited by the materials for implementation. Many advisory groups, such as the Materials Advisory Board of the National Research Council, functioning close to the Department of Defense, several summer studies and other familiar devices were created. However, solutions were rarely if ever found by massive, concerted, mission-oriented materials efforts. The progress that has been made, of course, and it is large, has often come from special combinations of research and technology where disciplines have been gaily and flagrantly mixed.

In addition, however, to the undeniably stimulating influence of particular goals such as durable nuclear reactors and long range, high thrust missiles and reliable and facile electronic components, another more subtle value seems to have been developed from these experiences. Solid state science is a certain embodiment of this value. This value is the unification of large, important bodies of knowledge. For the first time since the blooming of science that we mentioned at the beginning, we have seen in the past decade a reversal of the trend to compartmentation. I shall try to exhibit later a few examples of the circumstances surrounding interesting cases of this reversal. However, I think we have recalled the situation well enough to summarize this part by saying that when science was indeed adopted by the government as a major element in policy, when Dr. Killian became Special Assistant to President Eisenhower and the President's Science Advisory Committee was taken into the White House, it was determined that Federal stimulation of materials research and technology was one of the highest aims, which promised the greatest fulfillment 6f the world's expectations from science. For this goal to be gained, it was necessary to create near the top of the government a mechanism for correlating the basic knowledge and ultimately the technology of the wondrously diverse departments. This was effected by the implementation of the report “Strengthening American Science,'” which was one of the earliest outputs of the White House Science Advisors. In that study, we proposed a Federal Council for Science and Technology, which was duly activated in the spring (March 13) of 1959 and which has been progressively strengthened, so that under the present chairmanship of Dr. J. B. Wiesner, it has become a pivotal mechanism for cooperation among Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, HEW, Interior, and agencies AEC, NSF, NASA, with Dept. State and BOB as observers. (This is not to say that as with other cooperatives it functions incessantly that way!).

Also, this policy study did not favor the creation of Federal institutes or assignment of major, generalized research and development roles such as materials research and development to government laboratories. Rather, it strongly advocated the expansion of university facilities and programs, where they could naturally and as part of their teaching process, supplement the store of basic information so urgently needed by the Defense Department and its contractors, the Space Agency, the Atomic Energy Commission and many others. The position that such research, including engineering research, could indeed form an essential ingredient of expanded education was verified by the detailed considerations of the subsequent PSAC Panel for which we wrote what is known as the Seaborg Report “Scientific Progress, the Universities and the Federal Government.”

It is proper, therefore, that as you symbolize here the first realization of the great dreams we have had for a major technical supplement to national strength and welfare, you should also realize the dimensions of this position. It is equally fitting that you think of the courage and initiative of those few people, particularly those within the government, who set out to embody the vision that we had only sketched, but although for which broad elements of approval had been received from the White House and its environs. National materials programs had been talked about quite a lot before the Spring of 1959. There had indeed been opportunities for agencies to form cooperative efforts in contracting or in their own 1aberatories. The NSF did encourage some interdepartmental university programs in materials science. But real coalitions did not happen until, in the presence of the Federal Council, the action of the science advisors was coupled with the interest of the new Director of Defense, Research and Engineering, and of the associated Advanced Research Projects Agency. These interests, animated by patriotic staffs, led to the historic effort we see now. I am obliged to say that no Federal administrators were trampled in the rush of other agencies to join the Department of Defense and to play their role in meeting these needs of the nation and fulfilling the policies of the heads of government. (I would only say in this respect that disciplinarianism is also needed out of school, along with interdisciplinarianism. But in time the realities and urgencies will correct what the weaknesses of conscience and of authority in some other agencies of our government have so far failed to do.) Enough of that, however. The important thing is that associated with the names of Herbert York, John Kincaid of the IDA group and, most significantly in execution of the program, Charlie Yost, Jack Ruina and their associates, a notable chapter in the stimulus and support of Federal science has been written. Concurrently with this, the Coordinating Committee for Materials Research and Development of the Federal Council for Science and Technology has operated diligently under the leadership of Don Stevens and with the important staff assistance of Gibson, Kelman and, most recently, Lee Westrate.

The Defense Department, and particularly, the Office of the Director of Defense Research and Engineering, of course, knows that in its multibillion dollar research and development programs, materials remain the common and pervasive technical challenge. More than that, however, the Defense Department has been wisely alert to this other subtle feature that I spoke of before, that materials science is leading toward a new unity of natural science. This means that other new discoveries, the revelation of new principles and effects are going increasingly to be closely associated with progress in materials science. There will arise in the mystical mode of discovery, from the findings and probings of the free minds that are challenged by the new unity of materials science and the new opportunities of interdisciplinary work. Thus, the subject will accelerate itself. Important new effects like the production of coherent light, the endurance of superconductivity in high magnetic fields, the Matthias phenomena of appearance of great new colonies of substances with critical physical sensitivities, such as superconductivity, ferroelectricity, etc., all symbolize this trend.

There remains, however, in the face of such promising new national resources the question of translation of their results into applications. This is where on the one hand we hope for a valiant response of engineering schools and scholars of the nation to  teach applied science and technology of materials in ways which fully exploit in the academic realm the new role of the national research programs. Beyond that, however, we also need to invent new methods for the rapid dissemination and examination of these findings to the laboratories and contract facilities of the government and particularly of the Department of Defense.

This communication exercise alone could stimulate interdisciplinarianism in the technical and scientific literature. It seems likely that a careful classifying of materials properties and sources for indexing and retrieval could be the next major function of the government's expanding information handling facilities. While there have been various discussions in times past about a materials information center, for instance, in the National Bureau of Standards, some very important specialized centers have already been established in the past few years, such as at Battelle Institute for certain types of materials, Picatinny Arsenal for plastics, etc. A further review of the obligations of the government in the communication of scientific and technical information is presently under way, following up the several years of experience with the Office of Science Information Service of the National Science Foundation and other provisions of the Defense Education Act of 1958. Quite probably an early concern of an expanded and strengthened4nformationExchange, the large bibliographic bureau for government reports already tried out in the life sciences as an adjunct to the Smithsonian Institution, will concentrate on the materials aspects of the physical sciences. Perhaps the Department of Commerce's “U.S. Government Research Reports.” based on contract reports and issued by the Office of Technical Services, will also find ways to exhibit this ongoing fusion of the classical disciplines into an interdisciplinary union. The promising, mechanized issuance of permutation indices to literature and the rapidly evolving companion aid of citation indices are particularly appropriate for materials science and technology. Hence, the desirable structure of the literature itself exerts considerable force for interdisciplinary activity.

Thus, we see some sample of the manifold reasons for interdisciplinarianism out of school. Similarly, we find its values in school, since there the unencumbered youth spends its fleeting hours of research and study with a compelling need for free interplay of all disciplines and of their techniques. Consider, for instance, the influence of high capacity computing machines and the programming and compiling associated with their use in the problems of physical sciences. These too alone add a new coherence to the old separate academic units. The values of problem solving and of experiment simulation in mechanics, chemistry and physics, above all in engineering, are climaxed by the work on materials common to these fields. We could expand these examples over and over, but it looks from the way the academic community is answering the opportunities in the eight principal ARPA-IDL centers alone that little persuasion is necessary in this score. Thus, in the coming year, it appears that about 335 faculty members with over 300 research associates and about 1300 students will be working on this program. To this one can add about 100 more faculty members from the three associated universities with about 90 research associates and about 353 students. Thus, the prospect of more than 1600 students in the next few years having completed extensive studies in the cosmopolitan atmosphere of interdisciplinary laboratories is an immensely exciting prospect. A total of about $22 millions that ARPA will be spending in fiscal 1963 for the total support of these eleven enterprises, where also considerable earlier support is continuing from various other agencies, particularly the National Science Foundations and sections of the Department of Defense, is a thrifty investment, indeed.

Among other virtues, the rebirth of interdisciplinarianism in school is sure to make braver scholars. For instance, the words liquid state has in recent decades been a phrase to strike terror to the heart of the physicist. But recent structure and theoretical studies imply that with the courageous assistance of chemists, of applied mathematicians, that physicists may soon know much about fluids - indeed, even know as much as they feel about them.

The situation with respect to applications may also benefit from attitudes in the university. I am reminded of the wisdom of Professor Mark Kac in which he said: “By its nature and by its historical heritage mathematics lives on an interplay of ideas. The progress of mathematics and its vigor has always depended on the abstract helping the concrete and the concrete feeding the abstract. We cannot lose the awareness that mathematics is but a part of a great flow of ideas. To isolate mathematics and to divide it means in the long run to starve it and perhaps even to destroy it.” The context of Professor Kac's remarks and a feeling that many of us had uneasily is that the compartmentation of physical science is similarly weakening its once deep originality and vigor. There is little doubt that the big steps have recently come in stepping over what seemed like barriers between branches of study. Materials science and technology are one of the best barrier breakers and wall smashers. The opportunity is shaping up for a new great fusion of scientific knowledge and methods to reveal the greatest visions of Nature. The place of materials research and development appears clearly in the phrasing of the poet Charles Albert Brown:

“Grant us, we pray, a knowledge of those laws

Which change the rock to soil, the soil to bread

And bread to flesh for Thou by them dost cause

Warm life to spring from what was cold and dead.”