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The fusion of different kinds of knowledge towards a more humane science

by Richard Meckien - published Jul 22, 2016 05:50 PM - - last modified Jul 29, 2016 04:52 PM
Rights: Original version in Portuguese by Sylvia Miguel.

Till Roenneberg

Chronobiologist Till Roenneberg talked about interdisciplinarity and the humanities on July 19

"Certain issues in the academic environment must be considered when we think about promoting interdisciplinarity. There is a political decision to be taken by development agencies. We need to finance those wishing to work with those who do not belong to the natural sciences. Hence we will have a new world." The comment by chronobiologist Till Roenneberg closed the conference Why Science needs more than Interdisciplinarity, held by the IEA on July 19.

Trained in medicine, biology and physics, Roenneberg has shown his concern when talking about the lack of communication and mutual understanding between the natural sciences and the humanities. "All the resentment and arrogance among disciplines have only brought confusion. We know we should start talking. Philosophy and science were together in the beginning but then split apart. We must go back to the beginning, to the basic questions," he said. "We only know ourselves from criticism by others. So if we get rid of the human sciences, as many universities are doing, natural scientists will increase the ignorance of what they are doing."

Roenneberg lamented the fact that many humanists have no knowledge about crucial issues of biology, such as advances in molecular biology or the evolution of living beings. "Unfortunately, without a minimum knowledge about the importance of all this one can not build criticism about it. The biological sciences dominate science today and, therefore, we must understand this field if we want to put their scientists where they should be," he said.

"We need the humanities back into the science boat, but not in the way as it is currently happening. It has to be more communicative and more critical regarding other areas.Roenneberg, a professor and vice-president of the Institute of Medical Psychology at Ludwig-Maximilians University (LMU), said that the term 'interdisciplinarity' has not been used properly.

Atomium de Bruxelas

Atomium, in Brussels. The structure is analogous to the interdisciplinarity as practiced in science, says the scientist

"The word reminds me of the Atomium in Brussels, where the spheres are connected to each other but nothing happens. It is as if we were hand in hand without getting anywhere. I like to think of interdisciplinarity when I think of what bacteria do. They exchange information and actually become infected. We have to change this word if we expect something more from interdisciplinarity. We have to think of a fusion of different kinds of knowledge," he said.

But the proposed fusion would not mean the abandonment of disciplinary fields. "It is not possible for everyone to be purely interdisciplinary, as this would result in bad science. I believe that everyone should have their specialties but also learn to understand and interact with other fields," he said.

Roenneberg is a disciple of physicist, biologist and physiologist Jürgen Walther Ludwig Aschoff (1913 - 1998), one of the founders of chronobiology, which studies the circadian rhythm, also called biological clock or circadian cycle. It is the period of about 24 hours which the life cycle of almost all living beings is based on. So it is a cycle influenced by variations of light, temperature, tides and winds between day and night.

The professor has spent two weeks in Brazil developing activities related to research on the quality of sleep in quilombolas. The studies should cover remote communities in several states. The aim is to deepen the findings on the influence of the external environment and artificial light on sleep quality.

According to the scientist, the modern man lives with little light during the day by getting locked in offices and is exposed to many stimuli at night due to artificial light. This not only changes the quality of sleep but also produces what he calls "social jet lag", or a physical and mental strain caused by the disagreement between the biological clock and the social clock. Sleep disorders are responsible for most of the diseases of modernity. "People smoke more, drink more coffee, suffer more from depression, anxiety, metabolic problems and diabetes," he said.

On science, gender and brain

Público Till Roenneberg

Audience at the conference Why Science needs more than Interdisciplinary

Roenneberg resumed the topics discussed during the workshops In Search of Interdisciplinary Dialogue, held by the Waseda Institute for Advanced Studies (WIAS) at Waseda University on March 14, during the second phase of the Intercontinental Academia.

He noted that regardless of the "knowledge box" or area that we deal with the entire academic enterprise relates to human beings. On the one hand we have the Holocaust, the atomic bomb, Fukushima, the terrorist events of 2011, while on the other hand there is penicillin, the abolition of slavery, equal rights, photovoltaic cells, immunization. In short, the good and the bad. "So all the products of each one of the disciplines we know will impact humans. So science must always be attentive to the direction it is taking and it seems that lately we have not given due attention to this," he said.

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To understand the phenomena produced by science requires a kind of thinking "outside the box", he said. "What is central in everything we do is our brain. He is the microscope, the principle of our thinking. The world is full of data and everything is processed in our brain according to our personal experiences. The reflection on the future of science leads to questions about the actors that drive science. The understanding of the world is done by the brain and science is dominated by male brains."

The issue of gender and equity is relevant because all science, in general, has been done by men, he said. "And men like big and expensive toys. Perhaps this explains our tendency to invest in large, expensive machines. But this way we will produce more and more data we are not yet able to analyze properly. Therefore, we should invest in young brains capable of inventing algorithms and intelligent mathematical strategies that allow us to analyze gene networks, brain cell networks or other interactive elements. The brain is the most interactive instrument that exists," he said.

Roenneberg compared the Brazilian behaviour with the attitude of scientists who insist on staying in their comfort zone. "I do not understand why this huge country refuses to speak English. I went to a big bank and had difficulties because not even the manager spoke English. Many do know but are shy or do not want to leave the comfort zone because it generates anguish. People in general and scientists need to leave the comfort zone and dare to make mistakes," he said.