I just came across this article from the MIT Media Lab that talks about the meaning of “antidisciplinary” – a word I’d never heard…


One of the first words that I learned when I joined the Media Lab was “antidisciplinary.” It was listed an a requirement in an ad seeking applicants for a new faculty position. Interdisciplinary work is when people from different disciplines work together. An antidisciplinary project isn’t a sum of a bunch of disciplines but something entirely new – the word defies easy definition. But what it means to me is someone or something that doesn’t fit within traditional academic discipline­­­-a field of study with its own particular words, frameworks, and methods. Most academics are judged by how many times they have published in prestigious, peer-reviewed journals. Peer review usually consists of the influential members of your field reviewing your work and deciding whether it is important and unique. This architecture often leads to a dynamic where researchers focus more on impressing a small number of experts in their own field than on taking the high risk of an unconventional approach. This dynamic reinforces the cliché of academics-learning more and more about less and less. It causes a hyper-specialization where people in different areas have a very difficult time collaborating-or even communicating-with people in different fields. For me, antidisciplinary research is akin to mathematician Stanislaw Ulam’s famous observation that the study of non-linear physics is like the study of “non-elephant animals.” Antidisciplinary is all about the non-elephant animals.

The Media Lab focuses on “uniqueness, impact and magic.” What our students and faculty do should be unique. We shouldn’t be doing something that someone else is doing. If someone else starts doing it, we should stop. Everything we do should have impact. Lastly, things should induce us to be passionate and should go beyond incremental thinking. “Magic” means that we take on projects that inspire us. In the Lifelong Kindergarten group, researchers often describe the “Four Ps of Creative Learning” as Projects, Peers, Passion and Play. Play is extremely important for creative learning. There is a great deal of research showing that rewards and pressure can motivate people to “produce,” but creative learning and thinking requires the “space” that play creates. Pressure and rewards can often diminish that space, and thus, squash creative thinking.

The kind of scholars we are looking for at the Media Lab are people who don’t fit in any existing discipline either because they are between–or simply beyond–disciplines. I often say that if you can do what you want to do in any other lab or department, you should go do it there. Only come to the Media Lab if there is nowhere else where you could do what you want to do. We are the home of the misfits-the antidisciplinarians.

When I think about the “space” that we’ve created, I like to think about a huge piece of paper that represents “all science.” The disciplines are little black dots on this paper. The massive amounts of white space between the dots represent antidisciplinary space. Many people would like to play in this white space, but there is very little funding for this, and it’s even harder to get a tenured positions without some sort of disciplinary anchor in one of the black dots.

As we engage in tackling harder and harder problems that require many fields and perspectives, the separation of disciplines appears to be causing more and more damage. The complex system that is the human body has become impossibly multi-disciplinary. We should really be working on “One Science,” but instead we are a mosaic of different disciplines sometimes not even recognizing when we are looking at the same problem because our language is so different and microscopes are set so differently.

The Center for Extreme Bionics at the Media Lab–led by Hugh Herr, Ed Boyden, Joe Jacobson, and Bob Langer–utilizes everything from mechanical engineering to synthetic biology to neuroscience in its quest to eliminate a variety of disabilities. This disparate collection of disciplines would never fit in any traditional department or lab.

Media Lab co-founder Nicholas Negroponte famously coined a twist on the academic dictum that faculty must “publish or perish.” Media Lab faculty, he said, must “demo or die.” I have made a modification- “Deploy or die.” I’d like all of the Lab’s faculty and students thinking about how their work ultimately deploys in the world, and if they can deploy it themselves, even better.

I think this philosophy of working together on big projects will help bring researchers together across disciplines – creating a single science instead of fragmented disciplines. We will still need disciplines, but I think that it’s time we focus on a higher mission and the changes needed in academia and research funding to allow more people to work in the wide-open white space between disciplines – the antidisciplinary space.

Update: One of our faculty members pointed out that disciplines are more like broad swaths and that a lot of the most cited papers are the ones in the disruptive “antidisciplinary” spaces.

Is Water Invisible?

One of the conversations that sticks with me most from my quest to compile a collection of one thousand invisible things was on the topic of water.

The person I was conversing with declared water to be invisible. I, personally, didn’t see it that way – because I can see water in a pool and in a glass, or spreading out to a distant horizon in the ocean and lapping up onto the beach at my feet. Though the substance is usually clear, water is something I can see, feel, taste, smell and hear. It is also measurable and containable. So for me, it did not meet the eligibility requirements for my collection. But for the person looking into her glass of water at the restaurant that day, it was an unquestionable truth that water is invisible.

An article that I came across online this morning, brought me back to that discussion. It expresses to some degree, my thoughts on the nature of water and how we perceive things. The article is added below in it’s entirety. It was published on Nautilus.

What are your thoughts on the matter? Is water invisible?

. . . . .

Facts So Romantic

Why Water Is Weird

One day, frustrated after many hours of meditation and practice, Bruce Lee, still a teenager, went sailing. His martial arts teacher, Yip Man, had been instructing Lee in the art of detachment, a key facet of gung fu. Lee couldn’t let go. “On the sea I thought of all my past training and got mad at myself and punched the water!” he later wrote. “Right then—at that moment—a thought suddenly struck me; was not this water the very essence of gung fu? I struck it but it did not suffer hurt. I then tried to grasp a handful of it but this proved impossible. This water, the softest substance in the world, which could be contained in the smallest jar, only seemed weak. In reality, it could penetrate the hardest substance in the world. That was it! I wanted to be like the nature of water.”

For Lee, the budding martial artist, water embodied an ideal of lithe and effortless strength. He learned this from ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching and updated it, adding, “When heated to the state of steam it is invisible but has enough power to split the earth itself.” It’s striking that water can illustrate and elucidate a martial arts philosophy while also being, to this day, the “least understood material on Earth,” as researchers reported recently.

Water can appear to be “fine-tuned” for life.

In their study published last month, Hajime Tanaka, John Russo, and Kenji Akahane—all researchers in the Department of Fundamental Engineering at the University of Tokyo, in Japan—tried to tease apart what makes water unique among liquids. It’s got anomalous properties, like expanding when cooled below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, which explains why lakes freeze downward, from top to bottom, rather than up. Normally frozen solids are more dense than their liquid equivalents, which would mean that frozen chunks would fall to the bottom of a lake instead of staying on top. Water also becomes less viscous compared to other liquids when compressed, and has an uncanny level of surface tension, allowing beings light enough, like insects, to walk or stand atop it. Since it’s these distinctive features among others that power our climate and ecosystems, water can appear to be “fine-tuned” for life.

The researchers, with the benefit of supercomputers, were able to tweak and untune a computational model of water, making it behave like other liquids. “With this procedure,” Russo said, “we have found that what makes water behave anomalously is the presence of a particular arrangement of the water’s molecules, such as the tetrahedral arrangement, where a water molecule is hydrogen-bonded to four molecules located on the vertices of a tetrahedron,” a shape of four triangular planes. “Four of such tetrahedral arrangements can organize themselves in such a way that they share a common water molecule at the center without overlapping,” Russo said. As a result, when water freezes, it creates an open structure, mostly empty space and less dense than the disordered structure of liquid water, which is why water props ice up. Both highly ordered and disordered tetrahedral arrangements give water its “peculiar properties.” The paper’s title spells this out: “Water-like anomalies as a function of tetrahedrality.”

Nautilus asked Richard Saykally, a chemist at U.C. Berkeley, why these peculiarities make the liquid so ripe for scams and fanciful speculations. The ancient Greeks thought water was one of the four “essential” elements, the others being earth, air, and fire. Homeopathy, which purports to cure illness using small doses of disease-causing substances dissolved in water, evolved out of this, Saykally said. But there are more modern magical claims about so-called “structured” or “hexagonal” water. Some “wellness” practitioners claim humans age in part because we don’t replenish our stock of structured water. Depending on water’s structure, they say, it can penetrate your cell walls more effectively and has all kinds of health benefits.

“There’s no scientific basis to that at all,” Saykally said. “You can’t make structured water. Doesn’t make any sense because the hydrogen bond in water lives for a few picoseconds—10-12 seconds—and these hydrogen bond structures of water are rearranging very rapidly so you don’t have water clusters existing as isolated entities in water despite a lot of these claims.”

The ancient Greeks may have been wrong about water being an essential element, but Saykally says it’s no coincidence that water is essential for life on Earth. “It’s something intrinsic about water in that the strong tetrahedral hydrogen bond network that water makes is a very flexible environment for chemical processes to happen,” he said. “It has the right properties to dissolve many ions; it has the right properties to cause what we call hydrophobic materials”—like proteins—“to fold up in special ways.”

Saykally has invented a new laser to study water clusters, with the ultimate goal of producing “the perfect model for water,” he said. “We want to combine all the information available from studies of water clusters with our terahertz laser spectroscopy—from quantum chemical calculations and from condensed phase measurements—and make a computer model of water that will answer any question you ask. That perfect water model is what we have been calling the universal first principles model of water.”

Watch Saykally, below, describe what he’d do with a supercomputer running a universal model of water.

You can enjoy the rest of our conversation with Saykally here, in which he says, among other things, whether another form of liquid water is possible.

Brian Gallagher is the editor of Facts So Romantic, the Nautilus blog. Follow him on Twitter @brianga11agher.


Fictocritical Maps?

I’m loving the work of Gerhard Marx.

It makes me think of what Rachel Epp Buller is doing with her fictocritical texts…

From his website:

TRANSPARENT TERRITORY – In his dizzying new series of maps for groundlessness, Gerhard Marx continues his investigations into the formal and fictive possibilities of perspective. Rupturing the flat surface of the map, he removes the illusion of solid ground and replaces it with a hovering, vertigo-inducing sense of uncertainty. The shape and notion of ‘the frame’ recurs in several mise-en-abymesequences across the works. Stacked in recurring configurations, its rectangular form has been bent into a series of optical riddles or Escherian landscapes.

When Marx cuts into the map it is a kind of violation – an act of violence against the institutions and processes of global modernity through which the world was filtered to him. That violence is present in the energy of dispersion, ruination and collapse that ripples through the fragmented surfaces of these works. But the story does not end with deconstruction. Offsetting it is the meditative, embodied practice of reconstitution. In constructing his drawings from the ‘found lines’ of decommissioned and discarded maps, Marx displaces the scientific authority of cartography with the subjective impulse of calligraphy.

To some extent, his map drawings call to mind mounting tensions within South Africa in relation to the land – the pain of dispossession, rage due to the slow pace of redistribution, anxiety around the threat of violent land grabs – all bound up in a shifting network of inherited lines and limits that divide the land into territory, domain and jurisdiction. But the works in this series are not only constituted of South African maps. They are random amalgamations of fragments of Europe (many of the original maps referred to the First World War) and Africa, and in piecing them together he conflates space and historical time (some are recent maps, whereas some date back to the early 20th century) into what he thinks of as ‘migrant maps’.

Directly referencing the the kind of makeshift, hybridised vessels we’ve witnessed people resorting to in the current migration crises of Europe, several of the works in this series have a raft-like look about them – temporary, floating, drifting between land(s) and territories. Hovering against a plane of deep opaque blackness, Marx’s reconstructed rafts/crafts transmit a sense of disorientation that is simultaneously disquieting and liberating. There is that vertiginous sci-fi sense of being cut loose from the mother ship to float indefinitely through all space and time, but also an ecstatic sense of possibility in being released from the grip of inherited systems of knowledge, measurement, power and control. – Alexandra Dodd