Historical Interdisciplinarity Examples?

For something I’m working on, I’m trying to come up with good examples of interdisciplinarity making a difference in science. Specifically, I’m looking for cases where somebody with training in one field was able to make a major advance in another field because their expertise let them look at a problem in a different way, and bring a different set of techniques to bear on it.

I can think of a decent number of examples within physics– techniques from NMR being adopted by atomic physicists, atomic physics techniques being used to address problems in condensed matter, the whole Higgs boson business coming in part from condensed matter ideas– but a lot of those are kind of subtle and technical. I feel like I must be missing something bigger and more obvious.

(I know about Schrödinger’s turn toward biology late in life, but I’m not sure biologists find that as impressive as physicists do…)

So, help me out, here. What’s the best example you know about of somebody from one field using their knowledge from that to make dramatic progress in another field? It doesn’t need to involve a physicist, either (so I’ll cross-list this in the life science channel at ScienceBlogs)– chemists revolutionizing biology or geology (or vice versa) would be great, too.

42 thoughts on “Historical Interdisciplinarity Examples?

  1. Edward Lorenz was a meteorologist who basically established Chaos Theory. He created a nonlinear model to simulate weather systems, and he noticed that his model was extremely sensitive to the initial conditions.

    It seems that it wasn’t so much that he had a particular insight that mathematicians missed, but rather that his field had a need and he stumbled across something that hadn’t ever been looked at in detail before.

  2. In mathematics it wouldn’t be entirely inaccurate to say that this is precisely the point of a lot of functorial relationships brought to light by category theory. Algebraic topology turns topological questions — “how many holes are in this shape?” — into algebraic ones — “how many generators does this group have?”. Galois theory plays on the equivalence of questions about field extensions and subgroups of symmetry groups of polynomials. The modularity theorem — formerly the Taniyama-Shimura-Weil conjecture — solved Fermat’s last theorem (among other things) by recasting it as a problem about certain modular forms.

  3. Aristid Lindenmayer was a botanist who developed graph rewriting systems to model plant growth. That was early and seminal work in graph grammars, now a part of mathematics and computer science.

    There are quite a few historical cases where scientists in a some field developed some mathematics they needed for the problem they were working.

  4. The math suggestions are good, thanks, and I can probably use them. I’d really like something that goes in the other direction, if at all possible, though– that is, rather than somebody having a problem in one field, and inventing math to solve it, it would be nice to have an example of somebody who already knew math, and brought it to bear on a different problem.

    For example, Hilbert is almost an example– he nearly scooped Einstein on General Relativity, because he was familiar with the mathematics that Einstein was laboriously teaching himself between 1907 and 1915. So while he came to the problem late, he almost got the answer first, because he was more familiar with the tools to use.

    Something like that, only, you know, somebody who actually got to the answer first.

  5. Michelson wrote a book called Studies in Optics (he is also my candidate for favorite physicist on the basis of this book). Chapter XV is called “Metallic colors in birds and insects,” in which he tries to understand biological coloration in terms of optical effects. Like Schrodinger, I’m not sure how impressive that is to the biologists.

    Dirac’s formulation of quantum mechanics was just a matter of taking math he had learned in his math training, and applying it to physics. I don’t know if that’s sufficiently interdisciplinary for your question.

    Now that you mention NMR, what about MRI? And more generally, the entire field of medical physics is a bunch of PhD’s in physics getting MD’s and learning how to apply physics to medicine.

    Also along the same lines as Schrodinger was Delbruck. His training was in physics, but his Nobel Prize was in Medicine/Physiology. I know less about him than I would like.

  6. What about the experimental physicist and Nobel laureate Luis Walter Alvarez? A problem mentioned to him by his geologist son Walter led to the discovery of the K-T boundary. A high level of iridium deposited in a narrow layer worldwide led to the theory that an immense meteor impact near the northern coast of the Yucatan caused the global conflagration that led to, among other things, the extinction of the dinosaurs.

  7. Would Turing’s contribution to developmental biology – the reaction-diffusion model – fit here?

  8. So maybe Hilbert doesn’t count, but he went on and recruited Emmy Noether to do some maths for him, and …

  9. How about Willard Libby and Radiocarbon dating? Perhaps a bit technical, but the impact in a number of field are not to be denied.

  10. Charles Darwin. While on board the Beagle, Darwin considered himself primarily a geologist. His appreciation for deep time and slow change in geology, learned from reading Lyell, was certainly an ingredient in his discovery of slow change in organisms through natural selection.

  11. I feel like Linus Pauling is a good example of this sort of thing. He used his understanding of quantum physics (learned from Sommerfeld, Bohr, and Schrodinger) to basically invent the field of quantum chemistry. And won a nobel prize for it, if my memory serves. He also did some pretty strong work in molecular biology and biochemistry, at a time when those fields were in their infancy, applying insights from his previous inorganic chemistry work.

  12. I like the Alvarez suggestion a lot, because he worked on a bunch of interesting problems– using muons to look for extra chambers in the Great Pyramid is the other really cool one. Also, I have a personal connection of sorts. Franklin is another one that had occurred to me, though I don’t know enough about her background. Darwin, I’m using for something else already.

  13. Hardy contributed to the Hardy-Weinber principle
    R.A.Fisher, being a biologist, pretty much created frequentist statistics for all natural sciences

  14. Charles Keeling might be a good example. He was trained as a chemist. His development of atmospheric carbon dioxide detectors has been fairly influential in climate science.

  15. The Luria-Delbruck experiment. Max Delbruck was a physicist by training, and he was able to apply his mathematical knowledge to the experimental setup to produce one of the greatest scientific papers of the 20th century.

  16. Well, Noam Chomsky was trained in philosophy and linguistics, but one of his larger contributions was to Computer Science, the definition of the Chomsky hierarchy of formal languages/grammars. They’re foundational concepts in CS theory. On the other hand, he did that work in the 50s, before Computer Science was a distinct field (from Math and/or Electrical Engineering), so you could argue it doesn’t really count.

    Oh, what about Kahneman and Tversky, whose psychology work on risk aversion and related issues won Kahneman the Nobel in Economics, and to a large extent revolutionized behavioral microeconomics in the 70s and 80s?

  17. and another big one: conservation of energy was first stated by Julius Mayer – a physician and surgeon.

    according to wikipedia “Mayer reached his conclusion on a voyage to the Dutch East Indies, where he found that his patients’ blood was a deeper red because they were consuming less oxygen, and therefore less energy”

  18. How about Pavlov? He discovered classical conditioning, a major psychological concept, while studying the digestive system. He became annoyed when his dogs began to salivate not only at food, but at sounds that signaled food – for instance, the footsteps of an examiner walking towards them; then he realized that this was important to ideas about learning.

  19. Have you thought of Donald Knuth? He is a computer scientist who changed the world of typography (by creating TeX).

  20. Richard Feynman did this several times on different fields:

    He deciphered some ancient maya code and almost discovered the importance of DNA as far is I can remember. He was overall known to tend to solve every problem that he gave attention to no matter what research field it belonged to, so I think there should be some more examples.

  21. How about Maurice Wilkins? He made his PhD in physics, later swithced to biology, and received a Nobel prize, together with Watson and Crick, for the discovery of the structure of the DNA molecule?

  22. How about Maurice Wilkins? He made his PhD in physics, later swithced to biology, and received a Nobel prize, together with Watson and Crick, for the discovery of the structure of the DNA molecule?

  23. Georg von Békésy got his Ph.D. in physics on a method for determining molecular weights. He worked for the Hungarian Post office trying to find what level of fidelity was needed to allow speech to be easily interpreted in phone calls and trying to find out how to acheive it. When he found out that no-one knew how the inner worked, he started dissecting cadavers and vibrating parts of the inner ear to figure it for himself. So a physicist working on a problem in telecommunications engineering eventually won the Nobel Prize for Physiology in 1961.

  24. Harold Urey (nuclear chemist who later did work on the origins of life and paleoclimate/isotope chemistry … maybe that is inter-sub-disciplinary since both involve chemistry).

    Max Delbruck (physics -> biology and biophysics)

    Luis Alvarez (Physics -> Dinosaur Extinction)

  25. Almost any significant engineering project requires cross-disciplinarity. Without soil scientists, there are many buildings that would fall down. The Manhattan project used almost every Physics and Chemistry idea in the book. The bigger the project gets, the more detailed the specialisms become. When the project gets big enough or ambitious enough, it requires innovations that are science, not engineering. Sometimes the materials and knowledge one needs to do the job have already been discovered (so it’s engineering), sometimes they haven’t (so it’s science).

  26. Wish I could edit that. Engineering requires just as much ingenuity as does Science and the distinction between the two is rather subtle, IMO. Please read my comment above with that qualification in mind.

  27. Although somewhat cringe worthy (and no I am not trolling), Frances Galton, Charles Darwin’s somewhat clueless nephew. Discoverer of the anticyclone (meteorology), geneticist and eugenicist, and forensic science (fingerprint classification).


  28. X-Ray Crystallographic methods for determining molecular shapes and then developing into protein structure refinement seem like a classic example. Physics methods and that are still helping with breakthrough in biochemistry. The history of the techniques are full of interdisciplinary work.

  29. Kristian Bierkeland, a Norwegian physicist, made many discoveries about the magnetic poles of the earth but also invented a nitrogen fixing process that made fertilizer from air and avoided catastrophic food shortages.

  30. No, but change the story to early work on wobbly water drops and later work on models of atomic nuclei and you’d be right 🙂

  31. No, but change the story to early work on wobbly water drops and later work on models of atomic nuclei and you’d be right 🙂

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