Where’s Tim?

5 06 2011

I’m back, that’s where I am. Back in Sydney, that is, after a month abroad jaunting across Europe. My first such jaunt to said continent. So you can expect a greater volume of posts on Ockham’s Beard once again. Cheer!

As for the trip, it kicked off in Riga, Latvia, at the 7th International Symposium of Cognition, Logic and Communication “Morality and the Cognitive Sciences”, where I gave a paper on the core theme of my thesis, titled Evolution and Moral Ecology.

Guess where this photo was taken (clue: look closely at the glasses).

The symposium was bloody spectacular. Some top people attended, including Stephen Stich (who gave a wonderful synopsis of how our moral psychology evolved), Jesse Prinz (who also tackled the evolution of morality), Michael Bishop (who can put away a beer or two as well as deliver a compelling talk), Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (who is a powerhouse in moral psychology) and may others.

Riga is also a gorgeous city with a rich history (and it’s filled with stunningly beautiful women). It was a pleasure just wandering the streets, getting taste of the culture (and the beer).

Next stop was Turkey, where I caught up with two old friends of mine who are on a six-month tour of the world. Turkey was spectacular. Istanbul is a vibrant and lively city, very cosmopolitan and a wondrous mix of the ancient and the modern.

We then ventured into central Turkey to Cappadocia, home of the ‘fairy chimneys’, which are conical towers of soft stone into which peoples over the last millennia have carved out their homes. Goreme, the town at the centre of the region, is one of the nicest touristy places I’ve visited – the Kelebek hotel is amazing, with rooms carved out of stone, along with excellent service, great food and friendly staff.

After Turkey was Rome, which is a bizarre mix of ancient relics and modern hubub. The scooter riders, in particular, are entertaining, if menacing, for their suicidal tendencies. Then there’s the Pantheon. Bugger me, it’s breathtaking.

Then was the overnight train to Paris, which wasn’t necessarily the best option in the world – it ran four hours late, was uncomfortable, the food in the dining car was expensive and terrible. But I made it.

And Paris. Holy cow. A good friend of mine once remarked that if aliens arrive and declare that we can save only one city from their Death Rays, the world would huddle for a couple of minutes and announce with unanimity that it would be Paris.

Hanging with the big D in the British Natural History Museum - a modern temple to reason.

The experience was also enhanced by forgoing the usual hotel and renting an apartment for a week. It was bloody amazing, with a fully equipped kitchen, two gorgeous loft bedrooms and was located right in the middle of Marais, a funky district close to just about everything.

A EuroStar to London later, and another week was spent familiarising myself with ol’ blighty. Curries were eaten, museums were devoured. Also caught up with a branch of my family that I’d never met – even ate an eel at the last of the family eel and pie shops (no, they don’t sell eel pies – that’s a ridiculous notion).

And in between all that, I even managed to put out an issue of Australian Life Scientist. No-one really knows how, but it worked.

Sadly I didn’t manage to extend my jaunt to include the conference in Provence, where I had hoped to give a paper on the burgeoning idea of Synthesis. Oh well, next time.

And now I’m back. Cor. I’m tired just reading through all that. And bankrupt. But hey.

So, I pretty much bypassed May in Australia. Did I miss anything interesting?

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Synthesis Begins: From Little Things…

7 04 2011

Interdisciplinary research (IDR) is hard. But it can be improved. And there are a few ways to improve it that haven’t been tried in earnest yet.

That’s the upshot of the first meeting of the interdisciplinary research group, tentatively toying with the title Synthesis.

In attendance were myself, Tim Dean (philosophy PhD & science journalist); John Wilkins (philosopher of biology); Tibor Molnar (philosopher and engineer); Nigel Cadogan (mathematician); David Kidd (information science; publisher; journalist).

Challenges of IDR

We first discussed IDR broadly and acknowledging that our own forays into IDR have proven to be halting affairs for manifold reasons. At the top of the list is that academia simply isn’t built to handle ideas that cross more than a couple of disciplinary boundaries.

The structure of contemporary academia is such that each discipline is neatly siloed, hammering away at its own problems and happily outputting to its specialist journals. This approach is safe, the institutions know where to put people (biologists go in the biosciences building), the funding bodies know how to fund it (biologists get money for biology), the researchers know where to publish (biology journals).

However, step outside the bounds of this machine and things start to break down. If a particular question is best answered by individuals from three or more different departments, the academy just puts it in the too hard basket. There are few or no facilities to encourage interaction between disciplines. Communication is difficult. Funding bodies don’t know how to judge the merit of the research. And journals shy away from any content that isn’t explicitly within their remit.

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Synthesis in Provence

4 04 2011

Sacrebleu! I’ve had an abstract on interdisciplinarity and Synthesis accepted for the International Journal of Arts & Sciences conference in Aix-en-Provence in southern France.

It goes a little something like this:

Most would agree that interdisciplinary research (IDR) is oft lauded but relatively little employed in contemporary academia. While the benefits of IDR are widely recognised – such as it yielding new questions, approaches and insights by combining the findings and methodologies of multiple specialist disciplines – there are considerable barriers to effective IDR. These include inherent difficulties in communication between specialist disciplines, challenges securing funding, a lack of journals dedicated to non-specialist research and cultural clashes and power struggles between individuals and departments within institutions and between disciplines. These challenges are compounded by the lack of an overarching framework guiding how IDR is conducted. In this paper, I propose the formation of just such a framework. Where traditional IDR is conducted in a bi-lateral manner, this new framework represents a multi-lateral approach, analogous to a United Nations of IDR. Under this framework, IDR would be driven by specially trained specialist-generalists who are able to communicate and translate between individuals from multiple disciplines, raise new questions to be investigated, bring individuals from disparate disciplines together, help secure funding, and facilitate IDR, outputting it to both specialist journals as well as new journals dedicated to IDR. Such an approach could encourage greater IDR, thus liberating many insights locked away within specialist disciplines to be shared more broadly.

It was a somewhat off-the-cuff initiative, sending an abstract in. But I’ll be in Latvia early May, Turkey for a week after that, goodness knows where for a week after that (attempting to complete a production deadline on Australian Life Scientist remotely), and then this is just after. Figured I’d pop in.

It’s a part of my ongoing sub-obsession with interdisciplinarity and my mad dog idea of how to improve it called Synthesis.

In fact, I had a very motivating meeting with some other interested individuals, including John Wilkins from Evolving Thoughts, on how to make the idea of a massively-interdisciplinary meta-discipline work. I’ll be posting something soon on what was discussed at that meet, and where we’re going next.

So, if you’re in France in the first week of June, do drop in to the conference. I’ll be the chap with the beard and antipodean accent rambling on about having all disciplines hold hands around a tree and cry together, then go get a grant.

 





Chaos, Levels of Explanation and Interdisciplinarity

27 03 2011

I’ve been thinking a lot about interdisciplinary research (IDR) of late. (One day I’ll spend a lot of time thinking about finishing my thesis, but hey.)

It seems that one of the most fundamental questions to ask is: why do we have separate disciplines at all?

Seems obvious, but often the unanswered obvious questions are the most interesting. Delving into them can reveal something illuminating about our assumptions about how things are, and even reveal some false intuitions.

The simple answer might be that there’s no one discipline that can tackle every question we might want to ask. Okay, why?

Well, probably because such a discipline would be unmanageably complex. Far easier to carve up nature – and the questions we want to ask about her – into bite size pieces.

But why carve it where we do?

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Introducing Synthesis: the Science and Philosophy of Everything

23 12 2010

There’s an academic discipline missing. Terrible oversight. About time we put it right. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll call it ‘Synthesis,’ although you can call it whatever you like. In essence, it’s the science and philosophy of everything. All at once.

The interrelation of only a few academic disciplines.

Synthesis is a massively interdisciplinary meta-discipline that seeks to weave together all other fields into a single, holistic tapestry, and which serves to facilitate interdisciplinary interaction between disparate academic disciplines with a vision to share insights and open new avenues of enquiry.

Why do we need Synthesis?

There’s no question that increasing academic specialisation has been a growing trend over the past couple of centuries. Specialisation isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it’s the only way we can hope to tackle the deep and complex problems that occur at the fringes of our understanding of the natural world. But there’s an increasing awareness that having dozens – if not hundreds – of siloed disciplines, each with their own language, methodology, sharp boundaries and cadre of specialists, makes fruitful conversation between disparate disciplines more difficult.

Yet, each of these disciplines is attempting to explain some facet of the very same world.

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