Sai Potteru breaks down the subtleties of scientific academia by looking at the links between various fields, and places emphasis on the need for a multidisciplinary approach in research.
When was the last time you studied science? No, I haven’t severely misjudged the demographic that reads this magazine, and yes, this is a serious question. I’m not referring to particle physics or organic chemistry or cell biology - I mean science as a subject in its own right. For most, the answer would probably be primary school. Progressing through the education system, the science we study becomes increasingly specialised. To begin with, ‘Science’ is a pick and mix of fascinating topics, but as you reach academia, specialisations are so unique they would have constituted just a single lesson at high school.
This is the norm, but is it ideal? In the past, the study of single strands of a subject may have been conducive to new breakthroughs, allowing a scientist to focus all their time and energy into a single area, making them an expert on a topic.
The world, however, is not constructed upon three separate pillars of biology, chemistry, and physics. It is much more like a marbled cake with different flavours of science mixing together, and the boundaries between the flavours are unclear. Consider a problem which has plagued mankind in recent years - cancer. At first glance this seems to be an issue for the biologists and medics to tackle. Tumours form when cells undergo uncontrolled mitosis (cell division), and this uncontrolled cell division is typically a result of mutations in DNA. Sounds like the realm of biology, right? In recent studies, scientists have investigated a link between quantum mechanics and genetic mutations. Quantum tunnelling of protons between DNA base pairs is thought to lead to the formation of mutagens, which increase the likelihood of genetic mutations. While there is no conclusive evidence yet that this process causes cancer, it isn’t difficult to see the link between genetics and quantum mechanics. This mechanism, if true, brings cancer to the interface of two key sciences.
Yet another upcoming field is quantum computing, an innovative proposed solution to the problem of increasing the computing power of our electronics to meet the demands of modern life. This is currently achieved by reducing the size of transistors, the building blocks of the processing units of computers. Reducing their size allows more of them to fit in a device. However, as they approach nano scales, they become less effective at controlling the movement of electrons through them.
Currently, transistors are around 14nm in size - any smaller and they would no longer be functional, as electrons can simply quantum tunnel through. Quantum computing uses single particles as transistors, allowing many more of them to fit into a device. Additionally, single particle transistors operate by making use of the quantum properties of particles, bypassing the need to interact with electrons. A quantum approach can reduce processing speeds drastically. This is yet another bridge across disciplines.
What does this mean for science in the future? It is abundantly clear that posterity’s most fascinating scientific problems require a multidisciplinary approach to solve them. Perhaps to be best equipped as scientists, we must branch out our focus and immerse ourselves in issues beyond the boundaries of our primary subjects. After all, there is a whole universe of intermingled science for our perusing.
From SATNAV Issue 23, page 15.