Thursday, November 18, 2010

More Integrated Research--and Art!

How would it be to integrate visual arts, computer science, and cell biology? Sound like a strange combination? A recent video posted by the New York Times, "Animators of Life", not only reports on the amazing new animated films showing life in action at the level of proteins and DNA molecules, but also interviews the professional cell biologists who have begun to dedicate themselves to animating life as an instructional tool and a new art form. There is even an ongoing academic program at Harvard, the BioVisions program, that combines the different disciplinary instructions needed to become a microbiological animator. One cell biologist in the program talks about going to Hollywood for coursework in animation. Thus, synthetic worlds, including cyber worlds, are now modeling the real worlds of your cells. Check it out and consider the dizzying possibilities.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Interdisciplinary Research

Scientists and Soldiers Solve a Bee Mystery

Mike Albans for The New York Times
Members of a joint United States Army-University of Montana research team that located a virus that is possibly collapsing honeybee colonies scanning a healthy hive near Missoula, Mont.
Mike Albans for The New York Times
Honeybees inside a healthy hive near Missoua, Mont.
Since 2006, 20 to 40 percent of the bee colonies in the United States alone have suffered “colony collapse.” Suspected culprits ranged from pesticides to genetically modified food.
Now, a unique partnership — of military scientists and entomologists — appears to have achieved a major breakthrough: identifying a new suspect, or two.
A fungus tag-teaming with a virus have apparently interacted to cause the problem, according to a paper by Army scientists in Maryland and bee experts in Montana inthe online science journal PLoS One.
Exactly how that combination kills bees remains uncertain, the scientists said — a subject for the next round of research. But there are solid clues: both the virus and the fungus proliferate in cool, damp weather, and both do their dirty work in the bee gut, suggesting that insect nutrition is somehow compromised.
Liaisons between the military and academia are nothing new, of course. World War II, perhaps the most profound example, ended in an atomic strike on Japan in 1945 largely on the shoulders of scientist-soldiers in the Manhattan Project. And a group of scientists led by Jerry Bromenshenk of the University of Montana in Missoula has researched bee-related applications for the military in the past — developing, for example, a way to use honeybees in detecting land mines.
But researchers on both sides say that colony collapse may be the first time that the defense machinery of the post-Sept. 11 Homeland Security Department and academia have teamed up to address a problem that both sides say they might never have solved on their own.
“Together we could look at things nobody else was looking at,” said Colin Henderson, an associate professor at the University of Montana’s College of Technology and a member of Dr. Bromenshenk’s “Bee Alert” team.
........for the rest of the article, click HERE

Friday, April 16, 2010

Alan Clarke on Interdisciplinary Work

Although he claims to be a Luddite and thus unwilling/unable to post to our blog (not to mention Wikkipedia), Alan Clarke has written the following as part of a book proposal he is sending around to prospective publishers.

I post it on his behalf.

This Proposal Adopts a Broad Interdisciplinary Perspective Which Should Attract Interest in the United States and in Europe and Canada

The most multi-disciplinary works on torture or rendition, of which I am aware, are found within edited anthologies. These necessarily present an eclectic range of disciplinary understandings, differing from author to author, and essay to essay. A given essay in an anthology (on torture or anything else) ordinarily uses the methods and understandings of a single discipline. True interdisciplinarity – the integration of a variety of disciplinary perspectives in a single coherent analysis remains rare. Edited volumes are, therefore, more appropriately seen as multidisciplinary rather than interdisciplinary. Their strength revolves around the many perspectives that they bring to bear on a problem; their weakness is in failing to integrate the differing analyses in a sustained critique of the problem at hand.

Examples of edited anthologies focusing on torture include:

The Phenomenon of Torture: Readings and Commentary, (William F. Schulz ed., 2007);

The Torture Debate in America 151, 154 (Karen J. Greenberg ed., 2006).

On Torture, (Hilde, Thomas C., ed., 2008);

Torture, A Collection (Sanford Levinson ed., 2004);

America’s Disappeared, (Meeropol, Rachael, ed., Seven Stories Press, 2005).

The strength of this proposal is that it integrates differing perspectives as it examines the complex problem of torture. A full understanding of the phenomenon of torture resists narrowly focused disciplinary analyses and is most usefully considered by employing findings of history, law, psychology, sociology, politics and philosophy. This book proposal aims to do just that. Because both Canada and many European nations were complicit in the U.S. use of torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and rendition, this comprehensive and interdisciplinary treatment of the subject should attract a transnational audience.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Myths about Lincoln, Stories about Truth

In response to Mark's thought provoking posts:

A few weeks ago, UVU President Matt Holland gave a lecture about Abraham Lincoln that examined various myths that have grown up around the historical figure. In the process, he took a close look at Lincoln's second inaugural address, especially the parts in which Lincoln steps back from asserting certainty.

Several days later, we exchanged the following emails:

Many thanks. I especially appreciated your question/comment at my Lincoln lecture which got me back on track to make a point I had planned to make but got sidetracked from doing. In fact, I keep meaning to send you a short passage from my book that highlights the most unusual (for a politician in particular) epistemic uncertainty/modesty of Lincoln even as he is pushing for a vigorous defense of an ideal concerning individual human liberty that he simply considers true. For me, it is a remarkable blend of modern and post-modern sensitivities (though he would not have been thinking of it quite that way). I'll send you the passage.


Thanks for the pages from your book. I'm struck by the utter humility you highlight in the speech. You write that Lincoln knew he had no real control over the war and refused to declare it won (contrast George Bush's MISSION ACCOMPLISHED bravado), and your sentence about the "sweeping and radical sense of contingency" is especially powerful. That the contingency is in the context of talk about God, a living God, the God of the Bible, as you write, is striking. There's a phrase you don't mention that, perhaps, even further expresses the distance between the human and the divine in Lincoln's mind -- "shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him." What do we know about God? -- what we ascribe to Him (even the gender and caps).

In any case, this is the kind of epistemic humility to which I am continually drawn. I have worked for a couple of decades on and with a contemporary Austrian writer, Peter Handke, whose work keeps circling around the problems of what and how we know things and who we are depending on how we answer those questions. He undercuts as well as anyone the smug certainties of business and universities and politics and war ("The first casualty of war is language," for instance). And as a child of a German soldier during the war he knows the totalizing and debilitating language of the Nazis (Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein F├╝hrer) and yet simultaneously knows how much we need a (humble) Volk.

So where does this thinker of our times, a good and nuanced thinker, turn for structure and meaning? To myths about Lincoln! His character in the novel "Short Letter, Long Farewell" travels through the United States trying to find his wife who writes him at the beginning "I am in New York. Please don't look for me. It would not be nice for your to find me." I take her to be truth (from Nietzsche's "Supposing truth to be a woman" at the beginning of "Beyond Good and Evil"), and thus the novel is about our troubled relationships with truth. When the character reaches St. Louis, he goes to the movies, and in John Ford's "Young Mr. Lincoln" he finds truths that are so obviously mythical / filmic that they can work for him, truths that remind him that they're not true while being true. We've got to have stories to live by, and the best ones have a dual structure, a conjunctive "and" that keep us wary of supposed absolutes.

all the best,

In short, for Peter Handke and other contemporary thinkers, the truest stories are the ones that wear their contingency on their sleeves.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Truth: Fiction?

Sadly, this term's class in the evolution of story telling is almost over, but here at the stub end of semester an interesting new set of questions are emerging about the paradox of truth in fiction.

It would appear on the one hand that
all story, by nature or stigma of being identifiably"story," whether asserted to be true story or not, is somehow automatically perceived as less perfectly true than pure, narrative-free information. If someone were to tell you that even mathematics is a kind of story about how the universe works, you might either agree or bristle, but you would immediately recognize that the implication is that mathematics does not simply describe the perfect truth of the world as it is.

On the other hand, even the most perfectly fictive stories, making no direct claims for any sort of verifiable truth at all, will be understood as promoting a view of the world that in some sense is either true or false. When the Vatican objects to a fantasy movie for children, we understand that the Church fathers find some insidious message about how the world really is to be objectionable, even dangerous for young children to imbibe.

Moreover, we have been noticing in class that this applies across many cultural and temporal divides, and that audiences wish to know (or to debate amongst themselves in the retelling) what aspects of a story are
meant to be bracketed as the fictional or fantastic aspects, so that the true or, in common student parlance, realistic qualities of the story can be properly evaluated.

Aristotle once suggested that it is better story telling to allow the impossible than to allow the implausible. Is fictive story telling a kind of probabilistic estimation of the truth, even a sort of Bayesian reasoning from givens? Is that what story telling is
for, in the end, to see what would be true if we (could ever) agree on our priors?

Truth: Interdisciplinary?

A peculiarity of the truth in academia is that it seems to be discipline-specific. One of the more uncanny experiences arising from any lengthy interdisciplinary sojourn is the repeated necessity for exchanging one's epistemological currency nearly every time one crosses an academic border. It is a bit as if knowledge in university departments were still mostly a feudal affair, with each tiny duchy self-authorized to issue its own coin of the realm and raise its own taxes on any intellectual traffic passing through its territory.

This peculiarity obtains not only across the infamous chasm between the "two cultures" of the sciences and humanities, but also across many of the sciences themselves. Even within closely related disciplines, such as the experimental social sciences, the truth-value of data often bears a certifying stamp specific to a particular, local tradition. Which are more reliable, for instance, data acquired from experimental subjects who did not know what the experiment was actually about (as is typical in social and cognitive psychology), or data acquired from fully informed experimental subjects motivated by immediate cash reward (as is de rigeur in behavioral economics)? The conundrum lies not so much in any profound metaphysical differences as in the different traditions of assuming that certain kinds of information are better than others, when such traditions often define each discipline's sense of its own unique mission.

Is it any wonder then, that it becomes difficult to measure how much research is interdisciplinary at all? The thought crossed my mind after reading the previous post (see below), on the curious contradiction between the assertion of policymakers as "an article of faith" that interdisciplinary research will be crucial to tomorrow's world and the "fuzzy definition of an interdisciplinary program" that confounds the measurement of interdisciplinary activity.

It also led me back to the questions raised in earlier posts (just a little further below) about whether and how the data and theory of the evolutionary neurosciences would revolutionize literary criticism. Until and unless literary critics and neuroscientists forge a common currency as to what counts as true--or at least as importantly true--the disciplines may poach information or ideas from each other but remain more or less locked up behind their castle walls.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Interdisciplinarity in Science

Bob Robbins, from the Biology Department at UVU, sent me the following:

NSF Study Looks at Who Does Interdisciplinary Research

U.S. graduate students in the agricultural sciences are more likely than those in other fields to carry out interdisciplinary research, according to a first-ever analysis of the issue by the National Science Foundation. And the Massachusetts Institute of Technology leads the nation in the percentage of its doctoral students whose dissertations involve more than one discipline.

But beyond that, it's not clear what the data say about this important subject. It's an article of faith among science policymakers that interdisciplinary research is essential to address society's most pressing technological challenges, from energy independence to improved health care. But don't ask them to measure it.

The National Academies' upcoming assessment of doctoral research programs, for example, asked departments what percentage of their faculty members were associated with other programs. But the data "aren't very satisfactory," says Charlotte Kuh, study director. Part of the problem is the fuzzy definition of an interdisciplinary program,she adds.

[for the rest of the article, go HERE]

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Literature and Science

As I've watched Mark Jeffreys think about evolutionary advantages to various types of behavior, including sex and religion, I have found the questions fascinating.

And this semester, as Mark is thinking with his students about storytelling, I've been especially interested, given my background in German literature.

Now comes this article and discussion in the NY Times to give a bit of context for me, laying out the mutual benefit of studying literature and cognitive science in conjunction with one another:

Next Big Thing in English: Knowing They Know That You Know

Published: March 31, 2010

To illustrate what a growing number of literary scholars consider the most exciting area of new research, Lisa Zunshine, a professor of English at the University of Kentucky, refers to an episode from the TV series “Friends.”


Can ‘Neuro Lit Crit’ Save the Humanities?

Room for DebateCan combining neuroscience and Jane Austen get a literature Ph.D. a job?

Post a Comment »
Haskins Laboratories

An M.R.I. of a brain highlighting areas used during reading.

(Follow closely now; this is about the science of English.) Phoebe and Rachel plot to play a joke on Monica and Chandler after they learn the two are secretly dating. The couple discover the prank and try to turn the tables, but Phoebe realizes this turnabout and once again tries to outwit them.

As Phoebe tells Rachel, “They don’t know that we know they know we know.”

This layered process of figuring out what someone else is thinking — of mind reading — is both a common literary device and an essential survival skill. Why human beings are equipped with this capacity and what particular brain functions enable them to do it are questions that have occupied primarily cognitive psychologists.

Now English professors and graduate students are asking them too. They say they’re convinced science not only offers unexpected insights into individual texts, but that it may help to answer fundamental questions about literature’s very existence: Why do we read fiction? Why do we care so passionately about nonexistent characters? What underlying mental processes are activated when we read?

Ms. Zunshine, whose specialty is 18th-century British literature, became familiar with the work of evolutionary psychologists while she was a graduate student at the University of California, Santa Barbara in the 1990s. “I thought this could be the most exciting thing I could ever learn,” she said.

[the rest of the article HERE]

[and a discussion of the ideas HERE]

Student Succuss

I'm thinking, this morning, how easy it is to make mistakes.

I make a lot of them myself, and they usually occur when I'm not paying good attention -- or when I'm writing on a board in front of a class. Mistakes can be embarrassing, but I've learned to deal with that. Mostly.

One of the reasons to get an education is to limit the extent of that kind of embarrassment.

So it's doubly troubling when the official institution enabling the education announces its own lack of attention. This photo, taken yesterday, makes my point.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Deep, Webbed Rabbit Hole in the Center of Campus

Here's a question: what is the proper role of professorship in an age of world mind? Last night, after spending some time in class discussing ancient sources of Odysseyan legends, Homeric and otherwise, I found myself following a series of hyperlinks concerning fairytales and legends deep into the labyrinth of the oh-so-aptly named World Wide Web. Living as I do in a rural area with no cellphone service and only a weak internet connection at home, I do not often run the risk of losing myself in the Web, but last night using speedy campus servers as my wings I found myself as quickly entangled in my informational misadventure as any foolish fly. When I retraced my breadcrumb trail of links back out of the rabbit hole ("block that metaphor!"), I discovered I had gone about 2 hours and 50 links deep (and/or sideways), and had not only encountered a great deal of reputably documented information I had not known about, as well as a number of questionably sourced articles I could more or less ignore, but had wandered into realms so far removed from my original query as to be in some ways absurd--the later colonial history of Trinidad and Tobago, the lore of spectral hounds in the British Isles, the impact of Isidore of Seville on the medieval preservation and distortion of classical learning, and so forth.

Can a hyperlinked world be anything
but interdisciplinary? Is the best role of the lecturer/professor/mentor now to be a guide, a pointing finger only, a Virgil to the myriad student Dantes who have stumbled from their various thickets into the swirling limbo of facts and fictions that is this Web, this Matrix, this human-tended, human-groomed, superorganismic termite underhill of world mind? How should we then teach, when information itself is so superabundant that the single brain is stunned on contact? As the oracular Web itself reminded me, the world of scholarship was once so different. Back when that learned 6th-century Spanish Catholic and "last scholar of the ancient world," Isidore of Seville put together his compendium of world knowledge, the Etymologiae, it was brutally reductive and biased, but it was still a single, manuscript volume compiled by one scholar and then used as a primary source for nearly a thousand years by several thousands of later clerics, including the first teachers of what would become the great European universities. Yes, long, long ago, and yet. . . . Are we still teaching in a way that tacitly presumes such weighty tomes are the anchors and guarantors of our knowledge, when knowledge and lies alike now form one bewitching, fay electric swirl that halos and tempts astray each of our confused little heads? Is it even possible for individual human minds to follow the eerie, flickering lights of the Web, to wander into that world "under the hill" and safely return at all, much less with only true stories to tell?

Friday, March 5, 2010

Shadow Stories of Plato's Cave

The beauty of interdisciplinarity is that one's field becomes whatever one knows and one's research becomes whatever one does not know. More often than not, what little one knows serves mainly to point to wonderful new areas unknown. Or, as they were once infamously phrased--"the unknown unknowns." Teaching a class about storytelling from an evolutionary perspective this spring has opened whole new areas of those previously "unknown unknowns." Despite a long interest in the evolution of language and of symbolic culture, I don't think it ever occurred to me before this term that it is a complete mystery to all of us when the telling of stories actually began. Now that I think about this particular mystery daily, I find the world once again transformed by a new question. Genetic evidence for modern human origins (currently pointing toward somewhere in eastern or southern Africa perhaps a couple of hundred thousand years ago, see Tischkoff et. al. in Science, April '09, The Genetic Structure and History of Africans and African-Americans), plus archaeological evidence for ornament and symbols as far back as the South African Middle Stone Age, and the ambiguous evidences from linguistics, genetics, archaeology, neurology, and so forth for much earlier use of language and control of fire, perhaps rooted well before our emergence as this particular species of Homo, all begin to rearrange themselves as fuzzy pointers to when people might have first begun that quintessential and universal human activity, telling tales, short or tall, around the common campfire.

Recently, Genevieve Von Petzinger, a graduate student at the University of Victoria in BC, made a sensation in the fields of archaeology, anthropology, and rock art scholarship when she documented a comprehensive pattern to the simpler cave "signs" found among the famous Upper Paleolithic rock art sites of France, such as Chauvet cave. (For a laudably readable news article on her work, see The New Scientist cover story in Feb '09, The Writing on the Cave Wall.) While the really spectacular paintings on those caves have received by far the most attention, Von Petzinger focused on the dull little dots, squiggles, half-moons, and hand-stencils found scattered around the beautiful depictions of aurochs and horses. Turns out that there's a pattern to those squiggles, a pattern that echoes, with variations, the basic repertoire of rock art squiggles found around the world.

What do those squiggles mean? What stories did they once help tell? Down in Canyonlands, Sarah Jeffreys has been documenting and studying the layers of rock art left by indigenous Americans. Lo and behold, many of the same simple patterns reappear. Is there an innate fondness for certain fragmentary geometries, dots, lines, and so forth, shared by humans without knowing what they share? Do the stories connecting those dots have much or little in common? If much, is it because of the common psychology of humans everywhere, or were some fragments from tens of thousands of years ago still living as glowing narrative embers carried around the planet by far-flung foragers? Any discipline at all might bring some new perspective to bear, some new way of seeing the evidence all around us.

Friday, January 8, 2010

New Presence on the 5th Floor

We came back from the holidays to find new company on the UVU Library's 5th floor: Charles Darwin, as sculpted by Associate Dean of Science and Health Dan Fairbanks.

Dan gives an amazing lecture about evolution while sculpting a young Darwin, who ages as the lecture/sculpting moves along. It's a breathtaking display of interdisciplinary work.

And, of course, Darwin was himself an interdisciplinary thinker. In fact, 18th and 19th-century scientists were often thought of as natural philosophers and/or naturalists. It wasn't unusual for Darwin to be as interested in geology as he was in marine biology, as competent in botany as in zoology. Big problems (and evolution is one of THE big problems) require knowledge of all sorts, data of many kinds, and a general ability to synthesize information from various sources.

So, welcome Mr. Darwin.