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Intersections at WID: How Science is Changing

Institutional expert and historian Rogers Hollingsworth examines the evolution of science and why disciplines collaborate on more dynamic research questions.

Microscope graphic from iStockphoto

Rogers Hollingsworth is professor of history emeritus at UW­–Madison who has spent most of his career working with scholars in many disciplines. He frequently speaks before medical school faculties and research institutes in physics, chemistry and the biological sciences. Hollingsworth served as the plenary speaker at the 100th anniversary of the Max Planck-Kaiser Wilhelm Society — the first time an American was invited to speak before an audience from all 80 Max Planck Institutes — as well as at the Karolinska Institute, which awards the Nobel Prizes in Physiology or Medicine. For many years, Hollingsworth’s scholarship has addressed the problem of what facilitates or constrains research organizations making major breakthroughs in basic sciences.

By Rogers Hollingsworth

Rogers Hollingsworth

Rogers Hollingsworth

Now is a special time for the founding of such an organization as WID, and it has the potential to become a catalyst for radical change in the world of scholarship. I focus on a few issues that illuminate where we are in the world of science and a few things that a new research institute might do to become a model for a great research institute in the 21st century. These positions I have developed over some years with my colleague Karl Müller of the WISDOM Institute in Vienna.

A “New” Science

A new scientific framework (Science II) has been slowly emerging, rivaling the Descartes–Newtonian perspective (Science I), dominant for several hundred years. Science II places a great deal of emphasis on evolution, dynamism, chance and/or pattern recognition. As both cause and effect of the new perspective, scholars in the physical, biological and social sciences are increasingly addressing common problems, borrowing insights from and interacting with each other. Because scholarship is so specialized across different fields — from the humanities to the natural sciences, scholars across fields generally do not recognize that at conceptual and theoretical levels, they are wrestling with similar problems.

In short, we are at a moment when there is potential for serious convergence of interests among social and natural scientists.

The leading epistemological vision within the Science I paradigm lies in its heavy emphasis on reductionism: phenomena are built up from individuals, individuals from cells and their neural organization, cells from molecules, molecules from atoms and so on. An epistemological assumption was that the behavior of large interactive systems could be understood by analyzing elements separately and studying microscopic mechanisms individually. The dominant theory in the Newton–Descartes perspective lay in the identification and clustering of universal laws. The world is made up of variables, linked by differential equations that are described like laws of motion, subject to noise and random variation.

Contrary to such a Cartesian design, a massive reconfiguration of science has been slowly emerging for approximately 150 years, starting with the Darwinian revolution in the 19th century, accelerating from the 1950s onwards towards a new science regime. While a view of the world shaped by the influence of Newton and Descartes is comparatively tidy and predictable, the new scientific configuration emphasizes the complexity and unpredictability of the world, open to many more possibilities.

The new perspective became increasingly widespread after physicists and computer scientists demonstrated in the 1960s and 1970s that even simple equations can produce results that are complex, surprising and unpredictable. Advances in genetics, neuroscience, computer science and other fields have led to a conception of science which increasingly emphasizes the important role of chance in explaining phenomena. The cherished notions of general laws or axioms have been replaced in Science II by notions like pattern formation and/or pattern recognition. Scholars in discipline after discipline have increasingly recognized that the world is far more complex than hitherto recognized. Scientists realize that logic and philosophy are messy, that language is messy, that chemical kinetics is messy, that physics is messy and finally that the economy is messy.

“In short, we are at a moment when there is potential for serious convergence of interests among social and natural scientists.”

— Rogers Hollingsworth

Two scientists whose work inspired and embodied the Science II paradigm were Charles Darwin (perhaps the greatest biologist and historian ever) and Ilya Prigogine, a 20th-century physical chemist. They emphasized the importance of dynamic analysis, the uniqueness of historical events, the irreversibility of social and natural processes and the difficulty of making successful predictions in complex systems. Scientists in the Science II framework search for regularities within systems, but unlike neoclassical analysts, they view systems as tending to move away from equilibrium, occasionally evolving into a new system. Science II rejects the idea that reality can be explained with determinism, linearity and certainty, but frequently uses methodological and theoretical frameworks that suggest that historical analysis is central to scientific understanding. Their work and that of others (e.g., John von Neumann) had enormous impact not only on the social sciences, but also on biology, geology, meteorology and computer science.

Studying Across Disciplines with New Institutions

I am not suggesting that the Science I perspective is no longer valid for scientific investigations. On the contrary, to address many problems, the Science I perspective will continue to be very valuable, but Science II has considerable promise for a number of research areas.

Highly creative and productive scholarship involves a trade-off between range and specificity. By enhancing the range of our knowledge, we increase the prospects of recognizing new patterns and of developing new insights about the world, but at the expense of in-depth understanding. Creativity emerges as a result of broad thinking, and usually requires integrating knowledge from diverse fields and investing in being rigorous and acquiring great depth in specific areas.

Entire new institutes and research programs are emerging which focus on problems of common interest to both natural and social scientists. One of the most visible has been the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, involving prominent physicists, biologists, sociologists, economists and anthropologists, several of whom have been Nobel laureates.

Because of great fragmentation within their field, scholars often find it difficult to become interested in the work of others — even in the same field. Scholars specializing on distinct problems and different methods, but in separate disciplines, often have the potential to transfer their interests to highly permeable fields. The declining dominance of Science I and increasing importance of Science II have provided new opportunities for understanding, especially because our new theoretical frameworks play an important role in influencing the problems we pose about the world and also in how we go about addressing these problems. Science II suggests that much of the world is dynamic and complex with large numbers of micro-level interactions, which lead to the emergence of macro-level patterns of behavior.

“Creativity emerges as a result of broad thinking, and usually requires integrating knowledge from diverse fields and investing in being rigorous and acquiring great depth in specific areas.”

— Rogers Hollingsworth

I have discussed several common problems and processes shared by many colleagues in the social and natural sciences. But among these problem areas, the one that intersects most often with the others is the analysis of complex networks. The study of such networks is one of the most rapidly expanding fields of research in the social, biological and physical sciences. Because of the importance of complex networks in multiple areas of science, we are at a moment in the history of modern science when there is high potential for serious interaction among many fields of science. There is high potential for transferring theoretical models about complex networks across fields even when there is no strict isomorphism among the empirical phenomena to be explained. Since the early 1990s, the study of complex networks has emerged as a significant framework for facilitating the collaboration of social, biological and physical scientists in studying problems of a complementary nature. In complex networks — whether in the natural or the social world, one finds a growing assembly of elements (nodes) linked to one another whereby the formation of new links is not subject to a random process, but to the rule of preferential attachment.

Why should complex networks allow for a transfer of theoretical models across widely disparate fields?

First, the study of complex networks did not emerge in specific fields like chemistry or biology, but was put forward by a heterogeneous group of social scientists, physicists and biologists. Moreover, the understanding of complex networks was built on long and well-established traditions of social network analysis. Thus, complex networks are opposite to previous reductionist coups de discipline as in socio-biology or in socio-physics.

Second, paradigmatic examples for complex networks were not restricted to a special reference domain in the natural sciences, but had applications in both the natural and the social world. There was no need for borrowing and for transfers from the natural to the social sciences, because the initial work on complex networks was advanced by scholars already collaborating with their colleagues in the social, biological and physical sciences.

An institute that can bring together scholars in many fields and can facilitate close communication among very heterogeneous individuals has the potential to enable scholars to realize how much they have in common. It is my judgment that such an institute will be much richer in facilitating major discoveries than most research institutes.

This is my dream for the young Wisconsin Institute for Discovery.


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