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Post details: Wild Quest

Wild Quest

The heartland of most classical sciences has been vigorously strip mined for centuries. And we have quite a lot to show for it. Human ingenuity distilled their laws, formulas and theorems into technological and social progress. Fortunately for us this natural resource shows little signs of depletion. Motherloads of useful knowledge are still awaiting our jackhammers in the quarries of interdisciplinary frontiers. There, alongside the unexplored border regions, lies the Wild West of scientific opportunity, untamed rivers ready to yield their precious nuggets to avid prospectors unencumbered by canon of established doctrines.

Discovering new science, however, is like discovering a tropical island.

It is not a linear process. Nor is it orderly. There is no blueprint for collecting and synthesizing information. The quest for wisdom proceeds in fits and starts as it is furthered by many disparate groups and subcultures, by myriad of intrepid individuals who clamber over each other like ants hustling chaotically around an anthill. Equipped only with a compass of intuition, they all grope haphazardly through the maze of trial and error.

Members of each subculture share their own unique point of view shaped mostly by their educational and personal history. This common background forms a prism through which they see the objects of study; it constitutes a jurisdiction of sorts which they instinctively try not to overstep. As they struggle with the barrage of new facts, each group gradually develops their own jargon and procedures reflecting their native lore which in turn entails redundancy and intellectual isolation. The only unifying force that binds them weakly together is their curiosity about the subject and the thirst for knowledge. Other than that they are on their own, chiseling away at their particular facet. Sciences have become so specialized these days that creative cross pollination is a rare occurrence and those who enter advanced fields of study probably feel like Robinson Crusoe.

A tropical island is a similarly multifaceted entity. It looks one way from a cruising ship, and quite another from a flying airplane. It has a certain feel to tourists in a seaside vacation resort, and a very different one to natives from a little village deep inland. Their opinions about various realities of the island may bear no resemblance to each other. People from the ship are able to observe its relief and general kind of vegetation and may also be aware of its position in the surrounding region, something not entirely apparent to the natives, unless they venture far into the sea. People from the passing airplane see clearly the island's contours and the texture of its geology. The natives may not know the exact shape of the island as seen from the above or its relative position in the archipelago, but they know its inner workings: they know where to fish and where to plant crops, they know where the poisonous snakes are and where they can collect healing herbs. Finally, the people from the vacation resort have a mixture of both worlds. They know the island partly from the outside and partly from the inside, albeit both from a rather shallow perspective.

New interdisciplinary scientists are in a similar position as island explorers - at first it must seem to them that their partial experiences are irreconcilable with those of their colleagues across the aisle. A group of pilots flying frequently over the island will have a different sense of it than the natives, so to speak. Every cooperative human endeavor is born fragmented. But as similarities manifest themselves and the notion of common subject is acknowledged and even embraced, the need for a mutually agreeable platform emerges. True identities of objects will be taken into consideration. Wars over the meaning of words will be waged. Great methodological debates will be held. Walls of tentative dogmas will be erected, fiercely defended, then torn down and soon re-erected elsewhere and then torn down again.

Take a rain forest for instance. What looks like a distant outcropping of a leafy biomass from the ship, and a rather boring patch of green tarpaulin from the airplane, is in fact a much more intricate organism. Only a native, or an especially adventurous tourist, could find out that the forest is populated with a baffling variety of species and that its canopy hides a smorgasbord of fruits and nuts, something not easily seen from 37,000 feet. But eventually all competing groups realize that their viewpoints can be united and that it is in their interest to accept a shared narrative and terminology.

Over time, through scores of exchanges in the free market place of ideas, a new science is born - a collaborative effort of a whole corps of scholars, researchers, volunteers, academics, engineers, practitioners, tinkerers, scouts, technicians, scientists, thinkers, and yes, an occasional nut or two. Although you wouldn't be able to see those from 37,000 feet.

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