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Project Q’s main objective is to bring a multidisciplinary lens to quantum technologies, investigating the impacts these emerging technologies will have on our world. The exploration and engineering of our quantum future is, of course, not just the work of scientists. It is brought to life through a web of influence encompassing the countries that collaborate and compete to achieve a quantum advantage, the organisations and corporations that pour money into developing quantum industries, as well as the philosophers, policymakers, military specialists and international relations experts whose ideas and advice shape the way we engage with quantum concepts. This diversity speaks to the reason why a multidisciplinary approach is vital to answering the complex scientific and societal questions posed by our looming quantum future.
Before diving into a discussion of the role of interdisciplinarity and multidisciplinarity in science and innovation—two buzz words that many tend to use interchangeably—it will be useful to first define these terms, for in fact they signify two different approaches.
Interdisciplinarity is defined as a topical fusion of knowledge and methods from different fields. Nanoscience is perhaps one of the most well-known interdisciplinary exemplars, based on scientific synthesis across the fields of physics and chemistry. Generally speaking, interdisciplinarity is not defined by major discipline jumps (the border between the so-called “hard” and “soft” sciences remains intact here) but relates to the integration of insights from distinct but entangled branches of knowledge.
If interdisciplinary fuses knowledge, multidisciplinary approaches are said to juxtapose information. Multidisciplinarity is not defined by synthesis but by comparative collaboration, drawing from distinct, disciplined boundaries. Unlike interdisciplinarity, multidisciplinarity is not defined by methodological and theoretical integration but rather by the creation of a composite, creative approach to a research problem.
Both categories can be understood as approaches based on problem-solving, centred on a research topic that tends to defy disciplinary isolation (for example, climate change or public health).
These terms are two of many such categories, including intradisciplinary, transdisciplinary, crossdiscipliny and so on and so forth (I won’t go down this rabbit hole for the sake of brevity, but if you’re interested you can read more about these categorizations here). In true form, we have divided and sub-divided our language and methodologies. The process of the division of information is rooted in our need to create order as new ideas and concepts bloom and spread out from existing knowledge.
It’s a tale as old as scientific discovery itself.
Look no further than Carl Linnaeus’ taxonomic treatise, Systema Naturae, as an example of the rapid inflation of categories required to accommodate scientific discovery. Between the first edition in 1735 and the last in 1768, Linnaeus’ catalogue went from a brief 10 pages to around 2,300 pages, covering 7,000 species.
The period during which Linnaeus imposed order on zoological taxonomy was at the very heart of an incredibly fruitful period for fundamental scientific discovery and innovation. The scientific revolution (c. 1500-1900) was ignited as the concept of “God’s Will” governing scientific philosophy gave way to experimentation, methodology, research, observation, and modern scientific thought. This period brought us some of the most well-known and impactful theories that still shape our understanding of our world, our universe and ourselves in relation to it all, including Einstein’s theory of relativity and Newtown’s theory of gravity.
As author Bill Bryson comments about this period in A Brief History of Nearly Everything, it was a “fantastically inquisitive age”. Such rapid accumulation of knowledge necessitated new systems of order, which ultimately gave birth to many of the disciplines in science we know today, including astronomy, chemistry, biology and physics. However, the great names of this period were largely unbound by these categories. In fact, the term “scientist” was not even coined until the 19th century. Most of those making ground-breaking discoveries probed scientific questions with a level of multidisciplinarity that seems nearly unbelievable today.
Take Edmond Halley for example, who is most well-known today for the eponymous Halley’s Comet, which he recognized as a recurring astral phenomenon. Halley was an English astronomer, geophysicist, mathematician, meteorologist and physicist, not to mention the second Astronomer Royal in Britain and the inventor of the diving bell—to name but a few of his many, diverse accomplishments. Rather than an exception, Halley exemplifies the rule of the broad sweeping prolific-ness of natural philosophers during his time. Many of his contemporaries who were deeply involved in scientific observation, discovery and innovation across disparate fields and disciplines were also well-learned in philosophy and deep thinkers on topics outside of the strict purview of the sciences.
This tradition of multidisciplinary ambition in science is all but lost today. In striking contrast, scientists today are hyper-specialized. While the trend toward specialisation has been a natural response to the rapid expansion of scientific knowledge over time, it became even further entrenched in academia during the Second World War. Disciplinary boundaries dug their roots into both institutions and minds, as specialised university research output became an integral asset to national war efforts.
Since then, the silos in which the sciences operate have become increasingly fortified. While these silos have been constructed to facilitate deep penetration into certain areas of scientific understanding, they also discourage the disciplinary boundary-crossing that has brought us many of our most important and mind-boggling scientific discoveries throughout history—quantum physics being a prime example. As Project Q has previously posited, the siloing of knowledge and learning can be counter-productive to solving the recalcitrant mysteries still posed by quantum science.
By reputation, physicists in particular are assumed to have a strong disdain for, well, anything not physics. This view is exemplified by Ernest Rutherford, Nobel Prize-winning nuclear physicist, who is famously quoted as saying, “Physics is the only real science. The rest are just stamp collecting”. Luckily, quantum physicists of the 21st century tend to be far more accepting of the values of interdisciplinarity and multidisciplinarity than Rutherford was. This is demonstrated by the collaborative nature of quantum interdisciplinary research initiatives that draw on chemistry, materials science and engineering, as well as physics and astronomy, electrical and computer engineering and computer science. Likewise, quantum physicist from around the world have participated in Project Q’s multidisciplinary Q Symposia, presenting alongside leading international relations experts, philosophers and military specialists on topics of relevance for both the social sciences and quantum physics.
The pervasiveness of both interdisciplinary approaches and multidisciplinary inclinations across academia, while becoming en vogue over the last 50 years, is not novel but the resurrection of a former investigatory method. Today, interdisciplinary centres dot university campuses on a global scale and multidisciplinary collaboration is being heralded as a requirement for solving the world’s most intractable global problems such as poverty and climate change. An intradisciplinary approach to quantum computing (or any specialisation in science alone for that matter) simply is not concerned with investigating how the positive and negative potential for science, innovation and technology can create or inhibit sustainable solutions to these challenges.
Recognizing the multidisciplinary nature of our own scientific history allows us to see how combining different parts of knowledge about the world around us can help us to form a better picture of the whole. Multidisciplinary investigations provide a more pluralistic methodology for exploring complex systems like the quantum world, recognizing that solutions to some of the biggest challenges facing society today do not fit neatly within the discrete constructs of modern disciplinary bounds. It is within this very spirit of multidisciplinarity that Project Q was established, providing what is at once an uncommon approach to understanding the quantum world through a multidisciplinary lens, while remaining firmly rooted in the history of scientific discovery.
Recently, the value of this mission has been recognized by the Sydney Quantum Academy, which has invited Project Q to support social sciences engagement with the academy and with quantum science more generally. We believe this is an important milestone in bringing multidisciplinarity to an area of science that has the potential to shape the world anew.