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Humanities to promote the evolution of disciplinary methods

by Richard Meckien - published Apr 19, 2016 04:20 PM - - last modified Jun 04, 2019 11:34 AM
Rights: Original version in Portuguese by Sylvia Miguel.

Till Roenneberg

Roenneberg: "It seems like they (universities and governments) are trying to eliminate the humanities."

The existence of "biological clocks" is increasingly being accepted by the scientific community. The study of core temperature - or the arterial blood in the central regions of the body - is one example of how chronobiology is discovering how, when and why the brain and hormones are modulated by natural cycles. The interaction of organisms with the environment has been giving clues to many scientific discoveries and this shows that many scientific facts can not be studied in isolation but require a broader context.

The dialogue between different kinds of knowledge, or what academia calls interdisciplinarity, has been identified as a method to revolutionize teaching and research in the future. The theme took a full day of discussions during the programme of the Intercontinental Academia (ICA).

The workshop In Search of Interdisciplinary Dialogue, sponsored by the Waseda Institute for Advanced Studies (WIAS), at Waseda University, was held on March 14, in Tokyo, with the participation of speakers coming from different fields of knowledge.

Till Roenneberg, a professor of chronobiology at the Institute of Medical Psychology of the Ludwig-Maximilians University (LMU), has been invited for the opening lecture due to his diversified education, which includes physics, medicine and biology.

For Roenneberg, science needs more than interdisciplinarity. He sees a "tragic development" taking place especially in universities and governments around the world as they are guiding their research under the monetary focus, which leads them to forget the importance of the humanities.

"It seems like they are trying to eliminate the humanities because there is an idea that apparently this field does not bring much money or many students to the institutions. This is the worst direction we could take. There is a crisis in the way we deal with the humanities and we should change it," he said.

Atomium de Bruxelas

Brussels Atomium.

Roenneberg compared the currently practiced interdisciplinarity with the Brussels Atomium. Composed of interconnected spheres, the steel structure is a kind of giant wheel that provides a unique view to visitors.

“These spheres are incredibly proud to belong to a network. But what they do, though connected, is to stay in the same place. In fact, they only connect in order to stay in the circle. This is not interdisciplinarity. But interdisciplinarity today comes down to this," he said.

For Roenneberg, the UBIAS network, which brings together 34 institutes for advanced studies linked to universities, has enabled the realization of interdisciplinary science. In his view, the biggest advantage of these institutes in relation to other research institutions is that they have contact to the international community while maintaining the link with the academic community and the university environment.

For the biologist, every academic endeavor is related to human beings, and all that relates to humans is linked to basic biological and psychosocial motivations. "In my opinion, besides food and reproduction, humans also seek to reduce their anxiety and get rewards or social approval through behavior. That is what makes us exist."

To reduce anxiety and gain social approval, Roenneberg says that people turn to religion or science. However, the theoretical, philosophical and experimental knowledge that leads to scientific knowledge is full of arrogance and, thus, there is no understanding among scientists.

"This is shameful, because we know that we need others to be critical with ourselves and with our own thinking. It is also to overcome this that we need philosophy and the humanities," he said.

On the other hand, there is no way to replace the brain. The world's data become accessible thanks to the brain, which turns data into information. In this case, it refers to memory and expectations. As an example, Roenneberg showed a laboratory experiment using ducklings. The animals repeatedly go up and down a kind of slide in search for food and social interaction.

"One might think that the ducklings are sliding and chasing each other for fun. But the truth is that they are in a nerve-racking looping for food and social interaction, as these animals can not live alone. They are like people playing slot machines and seeking resources that can never be achieved," he said.

So everything can be a matter of narrative, summarized Roenneberg. Disciplinary knowledge as physics, culture, biology and others, also have to do with narratives, he said. "Apparently, the disciplines have nothing to do with people. But in fact they have profound impact on us for all the knowledge that is produced returns to humanity." Scenes of the atomic bomb, the concentration camps and attacks on the World Trade Center in New York were shown at this point of the lecture.

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Another "subtle" example with enormous impact on humanity was the advent of artificial light, he said. He cited the experiments of Jürgen Walther Ludwig Aschoff  (1913 - 1998), a German physicist, biologist and behavioral physiologist who built underground bunkers to investigate the relationship of daily habits of people and the incidence of sunlight. Alongside other scientists he was one of the founders of chronobiology by inaugurating the research on circadian rhythms. The circadian clock (or cycle) is the period of approximately 24 hours which is the basis of the life cycle of almost all living beings. So it is a cycle influenced by variations of light, temperature, tides and winds, day and night.

In the first weeks living in the bunkers people were still in contact with the outside world. Then they remained inside the shelter, allowed to use artificial light according to their internal rhythms of waking up, sleeping and eating, for example. After studying the cycles of sleep, body temperature, urine output and other physiological and behavioral issues, the researchers concluded that what regulates the time schedule and peoples' lives is an endogenous clock that varies due to light and darkness. This discovery helped to understand the source of many health problems related to aging, sleep disorders and symptoms called jet lag, such as nausea, irritation, fatigue, insomnia, constipation and other physiological discomforts.

"Sleep in the pre-industrial era was regulated by sunlight. People would stay awake when there was light outside and slept when the day ceased. But now, with the electric light, we are always in an indoor environment which is just a little illuminated if compared to what would be offered by an external environment. And at night, at home, people do almost never run out of light. There is insufficient light during the day and too much light at night," said Roenneberg.

"We have created a short circuit in our brain at the cost of more people getting sick. People victimized by what we call social jet leg smoke more, drink more coffee, suffer more from depression and metabolic problems," said the scientist.

The consequence of living out of the circadian clock sync brings not only individual losses. The direct and indirect costs resulting from sleep disorders and problems related to the biological clock represent 1% of the gross domestic product (GDP) of countries, something like US$ 185 trillion in the European Union, US$ 173 trillion in the United States and US$ 103 trillion in China.

Science can also not ignore the method of hypotheses, Roenneberg said. "We must not become conceited. A molecular biologist once said she did not need hypotheses to investigate the gene and what it does. But nature is not a set of Lego pieces. Scientific information is generated by many abstract steps involving different methods and machinery. Scientific research depends on a chain of steps that need to be checked and one can not do this without hypotheses. The hypothesis is necessary to make sure that we are not going in the wrong direction. And for that we need the humanities," he emphasized.

Another warning: science must overcome the male mentality that still prevails in academia, Roenneberg said. "Boys like huge toys and maybe this explains our taste for large and expensive machines. But if we continue to invest in expensive machines we will process more and more data that we can not analyze properly. Therefore, we should invest in young brains able to discover intelligent mathematical strategies to analyze networks of genes and brain cells, for example," he said.

The professor also warned about concepts related to religion, science and knowledge in an environment that is increasingly related to science. "Science is becoming a new religion. Take the Salk Institute as an example: a beautiful building that looks like a temple. We must not confuse things. Even to deal with this we need the humanities and perhaps the religious to tell us what religion actually is. After all, we have to respect the ideas and advancements in science. But at the same time, we should try a litte "disrespect" in order to prove them wrong," he finished.