Making a Hidden Discipline Visible

An interdisciplinary group of researchers is preparing a handbook on the history of modern chemistry. Their workshop at ZiF is called “Chemical Connections: Studying Interdisciplinarity Through the History of a Discipline,” and is convened by Carsten Reinhardt (Bielefeld University) and Paulina Gennermann (University of Heidelberg). Here, the conveners give some insights into their project.

Could you first define what you mean by interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity?

Carsten Reinhardt: The definitions are pretty flexible, but for me, interdisciplinarity is the interaction between scientific disciplines. Transdisciplinarity, on the other hand, means the connections of a scientific discipline with other social sectors, most importantly, industry. But you might also think of the sphere of medicine or of politics. Transdisciplinarity means everything where science actually affects social development.

What made me curious about your project was the idea of looking at interdisciplinarity through the lens of one discipline. There seems to be a contradiction, how does it fit together?

Carsten Reinhardt: I think chemistry is a form of inter-discipline or trans-discipline, as chemistry is basically everywhere. If you want to find it, you will find it, and it affects a lot of other disciplines. So we can have a look on chemistry through the lens of physics or through the lens of molecular biology. And chemistry is also an industry, it influences society, it is a technology and an approach that actually manipulates the world around us. In our view, you cannot study chemistry just with a disciplinary focus. You would miss much, arguably most, of what chemistry is about if you don’t consider the other sides. Actually, chemistry in this way is the perfect case to study the interlinkages of science with the world.

Is chemistry in this respect different from other disciplines?

Paulina Gennermann: If you say physics, it’s pretty clear what you mean. And if you say biology, it’s also pretty clear what you mean. But with chemistry, it’s not. And we are interested in what is actually causing this semantic uncertainty and how it has come about. Another aspectthat makes chemistry special is its perception by the society, how people are looking at chemistry. A lot of people are thinking immediately of industry.

Carsten Reinhardt: At the same time, chemistry is in a way invisible, we call it the hidden science. If you look in the media, physics and biology with all their variants are much more present than chemistry is. Genetic engineering, evolution, the atomic bomb, all that is present. Chemistry rarely is. But it has certainly an equal impact on society, we just do not perceive it as influential as the other disciplines.

Why is chemistry invisible?

Carsten Reinhardt: First of all, chemistry and especially the chemical industry avoid publicity as much as they can, because they know it is mostly bad publicity. Chemistry has a troubled relationship with society and the media ­- and for a reason.

Paulina Gennermann: I would add, it is even more important and also more interesting for us on the epistemic level. Chemistry is a kind of a toolbox for the other sciences. It is a set of techniques that other disciplines employ, adapt and develop. It’s linked to the level of manipulation that chemistry is the specialist in, which is the molecular dimension. In manipulating this intermediate dimension, not the inner parts of atoms, not the larger organisms, but the world of molecules. And this has been very successful.

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Lessons learned? – Learning lessons!

by Katharina Kohse-Höinghaus, Department of Chemistry, Bielefeld University, Germany

Questioned how the Covid-19 pandemic will impact the future, especially regarding science and academic culture, I find myself constantly re-aligning my thoughts along with progressing developments. The question itself appears somewhat premature, since the nature of a new equilibrium – should there be such a state at all – and pathways towards it remain quite unpredictable. To watch conditions change, globally, in just a few weeks has been interesting and
worrisome. Correspondingly, I assume for the state transition from before to after Covid-19 that surprises might be encountered along the way.

The crisis has been described widely as the most disruptive global experience since decades, with severe medical, ethical, economic, political, juridical, psychological, further social and other consequences. The situation also depends sensitively on the local circumstances. A rather personal view may thus be the only valid perspective. You may have guessed from the above terminology that I am a natural scientist (indeed, a senior professor of physical chemistry); this certainly influences my view. I will present my current thoughts in five brief paragraphs.

• Scientific contributions

In the past weeks, it appeared that science, all of a sudden, was publicly recognized – not as nice-to-have cultural accessory, but as systemically relevant. Science was and remains omnipresent in reports about infections and their spread, scenarios and probabilities, health conditions, test functionalities, potential medication, and vaccine developments. With unusual depth, politics and media request scientific reports and updates, and facts and figures as well as background explanations are sometimes reported by the hour. Equally impressive is the international level of activity and collaboration regarding the disease and measures against it. I cannot remember a period in which scientific activity seemed so important. Science is needed to fight the pandemic, obviously, and to explain processes and precautions. Biomedical contributions have been more prominently in the spotlight, but other disciplines are also concerned with various aspects of the massive impact of the pandemic.

It is a situation for multidisciplinary, creative thinking, not only for inspecting immediate problems and possible reactions. How do we wish to live in the future? How to establish precautions that the present situation might not become repetitive? The crisis has illustrated many influences that might not have been regarded in context. Now accepted views and business-as-usual routines could be reflected. New concepts and bold ideas could constructively challenge established thoughts about global interactions, production and logistics, work, healthcare, social systems, mobility and other factors. Scientists could be the group that might develop perspectives and become a driving force.

• Sustainable transport and production

Transportation and production have been challenged with disruptive changes. With traffic between countries stopped, airplanes on the ground, and people working from home, air quality has improved and energy use decreased. Economy, prosperity, timely production, and delivery of goods have dominated public debates, rather than measures to plan more sustainable action for the future. A consequence of the current crisis regarding transport specifically might be a different split between air, land, and sea transportation, a different mix between transport of passengers and goods. Foremost, however, a different balance of economic versus ecologic aspects would be desirable.

Climate and pollution crises have not gone away. Health concerns and shutdown of regular operations in many countries are causing gigantic economic burdens. Warning signs regarding climate change and environmental threats have currently sunken in priority, with media attending mainly to the Covid-19 crisis topic. Gigantic support plans for the economy could present welcome chances for innovative pathways towards more sustainable industries and transport options. Natural sciences and technical disciplines are well positioned to address such pathways, together with their colleagues in other fields.

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