Research Without Frontiers

I have always been a bit of a jack-of-all-trades, and have so far definitely had a portfolio career, what with: energy-environment-economy consultancy; research into site-specific weather forecasting; research into the impact of weather on health, and service development; business analysis and strategy; climate research contract and project management; energy efficiency and renewables consultancy; website development; writing; and speaking.

Looking back, I can see that it has been bound together by the strong threads of sustainability and analysis, and by a desire to work across frontiers… to mix things up to see how they interact and what emerges that might be interesting. It hasn’t always been comfortable, as it has occasionally involved treading on experts’ toes, and usually knowing much less than everyone else. The greatest joy is in talking to experts who are already open to other disciplines and seeking genuine applications for their work.

To undertake in-depth research, or to achieve mastery, requires an intense focus of attention and effort and an equally intense avoidance of digression. Once upon a time, it was possible to be a polymath – an expert painter, sculptor, architect, musician, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist, and writer… although perhaps not everyone was Leonardo da Vinci. Nowadays, as knowledge has advanced so far and become so specialised, polymaths are becoming rarer; to be a jack-of-all-trades is to be a master of none. Boundaries are required.

Boundaries can also inspire creativity. Think of the astonishing poetry that has emerged from the strict form of the sonnet or the haiku; or how the limited duration has generated some wonderful TEDTalks. But boundaries should be pushed too. We cannot say that we know all that there is to know about the nature of the universe or human consciousness. The frontiers of knowledge must continue to be breached continuously, and researchers open to the unexpected. Think of how Einstein threw Newtonian mechanics up in the air, or Fleming’s accidental discovery of penicillin.

Then there are the frontiers between disciplines, whether different branches of science or between the sciences and humanities. My favourite scientific articles tend to be about cross-over subjects such as weather in art or quantum biology or the history of health statistics, and I love compound-ology words like dendrochronology-palaeoecology and astroseismology. Sometimes, just sometimes, these interdisciplinary sparks can ignite real hope. I think my favouritest ever online talk has to be Tim Birkhead’s amazing Do Lecture (sorry TED!), in which he describes how one seemingly frivolous study of birdsong changed the direction of neurobiology and held out the promise of a cure for Alzheimers. Now that’s a frontier worth breaching.