A man of many disciplines

A man of many disciplines

Every few years, theoretical physicist Roger Penrose writes a book advancing new theories about how the world is what it is. Interestingly, these aren’t necessarily about his core competency— cosmology—but span the gamut of scientific research from consciousness to the mathematical symmetries inherent in the design of floor tiles. His books are aimed at the lay reader, although they can sometimes be abstruse and require more than a persistent curiosity to get through. In his latest book, Cycles of Time: An Extraordinary New View of the Universe, Penrose ventures his interpretation of what happened before the Big Bang. Most of it, as is usually the case, is entertainingly controversial but hard to experimentally verify. Still, the book does tangentially explain why American and British universities continue to be the leaders in interdisciplinary research and the dominant source of seminal research breakthroughs.

Penrose’s ideas may be wildly off the mark and ultimately inconsequential. But by virtue of his influence, accomplishments and position (he is professor emeritus at Oxford University) the man is able to attract young researchers as well as funds to explore unconventional lines of thought and engage in interdisciplinary research.

Quite like Penrose was Sir Francis Crick, one of the Nobel Prize winning trio that discovered the genetic code. Though his contributions were in understanding the role of DNA, Crick in his later years started focusing on neuroscience, and as director of the Salk Institute, is considered a key figure in revolutionizing the emerging field of cognitive neuroscience. Most importantly, he is credited with inspiring a generation of psychologists and neuroscientists to explore the neural systems that underlie consciousness.

Unfortunately, such eclecticism is rarely seen among top Indian scientists, who hardly branch out beyond their chosen niche. Even fewer write popular science books or make an effort to convey the excitement of their field, a la Richard Feynman. While Indian scientists have continually argued that limited funds and inadequate human resources are the biggest hurdles to interdisciplinary research, they don’t convincingly address the fact that well-written popular accounts by scientists play a crucial role in attracting bright students to research. While it is inevitable that research will become more specialized, it is important that there be experts who attempt to bridge these fields. This is what results in a “scientific temper"— to use a phrase from India’s Constitution—in society. And it reassures taxpayers who pay for this research that their money is being well spent.

Why does India have so few multidisciplinary thinkers? Tell us at views@livemint.com