In college, fellow cave explorer Ron Simmons found that the harnesses made for rock climbing performed very poorly underground. The cave environment shredded the seams of the harnesses from which we hung hundreds of feet off the ground in the underworld of remote southern Mexico. The conflicting goals of minimizing equipment expenses and avoiding death from equipment failure awakened our innovative spirit.
We wondered if we could build a better caving harness ourselves. Having access to UVA’s Instron testing machine Ron hand-stitched some webbing junctions to compare the tensile characteristics of nylon and polyester topstitching thread. His experiments showed too much variation from irregularities in his stitching, so he bought a Singer industrial sewing machine. At that time Ron had no idea how sew. But he mastered the machine and built fabulous caving harnesses. Ron later developed and manufactured hardware for ropework and specialized gear for cave diving. Curiosity about earth’s last great exploration frontier propelled our cross-disciplinary innovation. Curiosity, imagination and restlessness drive multidisciplinarity.
Soon we all owned sewing machines, making not only harnesses but wetsuits and nylon clothing. We wrote mapping programs to reduce our survey data and invented loop-closure algorithms to optimally distribute errors across a 40-mile cave survey. We learned geomorphology to predict the locations of yet undiscovered caves. Ron was unhappy with the flimsy commercial photo strobe equipment we used underground so he learned metalworking and the electrical circuitry needed to develop the indestructible strobe equipment with which he shot the above photo of me.
Fellow caver Bill Stone pushed multidisciplinarity further. Unhappy with conventional scuba gear for underwater caving, Bill invented a multiple-redundant-processor, gas-scrubbing rebreather apparatus that allowed 12-hour dives on a tiny “pony tank” oxygen cylinder. This device evolved into the Cis-Lunar Primary Life Support System later praised by the Apollo 11 crew. Bill’s firm, Stone Aerospace, later developed autonomous underwater vehicles under NASA Astrobiology contracts, for which I conducted probabilistic risk analyses. If there is life beneath the ice of Jupiter’s moon Europa, we’ll need robots like this to find it.
My years as a cave explorer and a decade as a systems engineer in aerospace left me comfortable crossing disciplinary boundaries. I enjoy testing the tools of one domain on the problems of another. The Multidisciplinarian is a hobby blog where I experiment with that approach. I’ve tried to use the perspective of History of Science on current issues in Technology (e.g.) and the tools of Science and Philosophy on Business Management and Politics (e.g.).
Terms like interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary get a fair bit of press in tech circles. Their usage speaks to the realization that while intense specialization and deep expertize are essential for research, they are the wrong tools for product design, knowledge transfer, addressing customer needs, and everything else related to society’s consumption of the fruits of research and invention.
These terms are generally shunned by academia for several reasons. One reason is the abuse of the terms in fringe social sciences of the 80s and 90s. Another is that the university system, since the time of Aristotle’s Lyceum, has consisted of silos in which specialists compete for top position. Academic status derives from research, and research usually means specialization. Academic turf protection and the research grant system also contribute. As Gina Kolata noted in a recent NY Times piece, the reward system of funding agencies discourages dialog between disciplines. Disappointing results in cancer research are often cited as an example of sectoral research silos impeding integrative problem solving.
Beside the many examples of silo inefficiencies, we have a long history of breakthroughs made possible by individuals who mastered several skills and integrated them. Galileo, Gutenberg, Franklin and Watt were not mere polymaths. They were polymaths who did something more powerful than putting specialists together in a room. They put ideas together in a mind.
On this view, specialization may be necessary to implement a solution but is insufficient for conceiving of that solution. Lockheed Martin does not design aircraft by putting aerodynamicists, propulsion experts, and stress analysts together in a think tank. It puts them together, along with countless other specialists, and a cadre of integrators, i.e., systems engineers, for whom excessive disciplinary specialization would be an obstacle. Bill Stone has deep knowledge in several sciences, but his ARTEMIS project, a prototype of a vehicle that could one day discover life beneath an ice-covered moon of Jupiter, succeeded because of his having learned to integrate and synthesize.
A famous example from another field is the case of the derivation of the double-helix model of DNA by Watson and Crick. Their advantage in the field, mostly regarded as a weakness before their discovery, was their failure – unlike all their rivals – to specialize in a discipline. This lack of specialization allowed them to move conceptually between disciplines, fusing separate ideas from Avery, Chargaff and Wilkins, thereby scooping front runner Linus Pauling.
Dev Patnaik, leader of Jump Associates, is a strong advocate of the conscious blending of different domains to discover opportunities that can’t be seen through a single lens. When I spoke with Dev at a recent innovation competition our conversation somehow drifted from refrigeration in Nairobi to Ludwig Wittgenstein. Realizing that, we shared a good laugh. Dev expresses pride for having hired MBA-sculptors, psychologist-filmmakers and the like. In a Fast Company piece, Dev suggested that beyond multidisciplinary teams, we need multidisciplinary people.
The silos that stifle innovation come in many forms, including company departments, academic disciplines, government agencies, and social institutions. The smarts needed to solve a problem are often at a great distance from the problem itself. Successful integration requires breaking down both institutional and epistemological barriers.
I recently overheard professor Olaf Groth speaking to a group of MBA students at Hult International Business School. Discussing the Internet of Things, Olaf told the group, “remember – innovation doesn’t go up, it goes across.” I’m not sure what context he had in mind, but it’s a great point regardless. The statement applies equally well to cognitive divides, academic disciplinary boundaries, and corporate silos.
Olaf’s statement reminded me of a very concrete example of a missed opportunity for cross-discipline, cross-division action at Gillette. Gillette acquired both Oral-B, the old-school toothbrush maker, and Braun, the electric appliance maker, in 1984. Gillette then acquired Duracell in 1996. But five years later, Gillette had not found a way into the lucrative battery-powered electric toothbrush market – despite having all the relevant technologies in house, but in different silos. They finally released the CrossAction (ironic name) brush in 2002; but it was inferior to well-established Colgate and P&G products. Innovation initiatives at Gillette were stymied by the usual suspects – principal-agent, misuse of financial tools in evaluating new product lines, misuse of platform-based planning, and holding new products to the same metrics as established ones. All that plus the fact that the divisions weren’t encouraged to look across. The three units were adjacent in a list of divisions and product lines in Gillette’s Strategic Report.
Multidisciplinarity (or interdisciplinarity, if you prefer) clearly requires more than a simple combination of academic knowledge and professional skills. Innovation and solving new problems require integrating and synthesizing different repositories of knowledge to frame problems in a real-world context rather than through the lens of a single discipline. This shouldn’t be so hard. After all, we entered the world free of disciplinary boundaries, and we know that fervent curiosity can dissolve them.
The average student emerges at the end of the Ph.D. program, already middle-aged, overspecialized, poorly prepared for the world outside, and almost unemployable except in a narrow area of specialization. Large numbers of students for whom the program is inappropriate are trapped in it, because the Ph.D. has become a union card required for entry into the scientific job market. – Freeman Dyson
Science is the organized skepticism in the reliability of expert opinion. – Richard Feynman
Curiosity is one of the permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous intellect. – Samuel Johnson
The exhortation to defer to experts is underpinned by the premise that their specialist knowledge entitles them to a higher moral status than the rest of us. – Frank Furedi
It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education. – Albert Einstein
An expert is one who knows more and more about less and less until he knows absolutely everything about nothing. – Nicholas Murray Butler
A specialist is someone who does everything else worse. – Ruggiero Ricci
Ron Simmons, 1954-2007
#1 by Steve on May 6, 2016 - 2:58 pm
I did not know about your UVA connection. In the early seventies, while completing my Masters in Physics at the U. of Memphis, I learned that the six-job-offers-without-leaving campus era was over, perhaps it was due to the Moon Landing success and winding down from it. So, I was lucky enough to discover UVA’s Engineering Physics program. One of my professors was a UVA Physics Department graduate. Perhaps it was his recommendation that got me in. I had hoped that the multidisciplinary aspect would be good for me and my later job prospects. The program was flexible, a student had a high degree of freedom in designing their program. I needed the exposure to the world of engineering and received it, taking mechanical engineering, aerospace engineering, and applied math courses in addition to physics. It worked out well. I was at UVA from 1974 to late 78 and walked through graduation May 1979. Went back in the 89-90 school year on a visiting research position.
#2 by boris on May 6, 2016 - 6:12 pm
“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”
-Robert A. Heinlein
#3 by Benjamin Schwartz on May 8, 2016 - 8:52 am
My son and I are currently reading “Spaceman Jones” by Heinlein. I love his writing. Nice article, Bill. I was just thinking about Ron, too.
#4 by Warren on May 8, 2016 - 7:36 pm
I was Ronald’s pack animal: I carried his 72 cubic foot tank up to an alpine cave entrance so he could dive a sump in a cave. Also I was part of the effort to develop the strobe. The problem was not just to build a robust device. This was really a response to the fact that they were going to stop making flashbulbs. At that time we were still using film and the little strobes of the day were just too weak to be very useful for cave photography. I found a copy of the EG&G Flash Lamp Application Manual by Doc Edgerton:
This was helpful to Ron and the other caver that built it.
Ron was a lot of fun to cave with. Also on the Alpine caving trip was Dick. Not many cavers get killed or even hurt caving. I’m sad that these two did. I guess that cave diving is still quite dangerous, even for experts.
#5 by Bill Storage on May 9, 2016 - 10:52 am
I remember that trip. I hiked up an met you as you were lugging the gear back from that alpine entrance. Very impressive. The next day, a group of us including Ron and Dick toured one of your secret caves.
A group photo from that trip with Ron and Dick: https://www.flickr.com/photos/bstorage/4215402846/
Photo from your cave in ~ 1993: https://www.flickr.com/photos/bstorage/4215402846/