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Steven Nikolidakis

Student, The Cooper Union For The Advancement of Science and Art

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Does society need more interdisciplinary work? Or more well-rounded individuals working together?

This week in my Bioelectricity class there was an emphasis on learning about muscle physiology. One facet of the musculoskeletal system which I find especially interesting is the notion of having specialized muscle tissue for certain actions or scenarios in life. Muscle is composed of individual fibers called myocytes, each containing protein strands which grab and pull on each other to induce muscle contractions. Muscle fibers can further be broken down into two types, namely Slow Twitch (Type 1) and Fast Twitch (Type 2). The Slow Twitch fibers are extremely efficient at converting oxygen into usable energy and allowing athletes to perform tasks for extended periods before they fatigue, such as running a marathon. The Fast Twitch fibers, on the other hand, don't use oxygen to create fuel and can recruit motor neurons for a short but powerful burst, which can be useful in a sprint. Each muscle may contain any combination of each of these fibers in order to perform an activity.

In this case, specialization proves to be an imperative characteristic to the completion of a task. In today's world, people immerse themselves in a vast array of fields in order to help the society advance. So I ask the TED community: Is it more beneficial to society to consist of people who are experts in one field, or those who have a well-rounded background in many fields?

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  • Mar 30 2012: As a general rule, what society needs is for the best tools to be used for the job at hand. Often, development of ideas and theoretical concepts is best handled by teams of specialists, each trained in a slightly different area of one field working as a team. Implementation of ideas, conversely, is often best handled by one or more people with interdisciplinary skill sets, more aware of issues not directly concerned with only one field.

    Sufficient work by specialists can develop theory to a point that saves a vast amount of trial and error in implementation, applying known issues to theory to test its validity. Likewise, theory can be put into practice by those with interdisciplinary skills in ways that specialists may never have thought of, being unaware of areas outside their specialty. The issue they face is perhaps best summed up by one of my favourite quotes: "In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. But in practice, there is."

    The old-fashioned concept of the 'renaissance man', who could know all there was to know in every field, is now an impossibility and many fields can easily absorb a life-times work. Perhaps what society needs is a better understanding of how specialisation and interdisciplinary approaches are both critical in their own way.
    • Apr 2 2012: I see the sense in having specialists, focused on theoretical knowledge in their respective field, save time on the implementation of ideas by a team of interdisciplinary oriented people. Attempting to draw an example from real life, I would see the building of a submarine requiring an interdisciplinary team at the head along with those who specialize in design, engineering, and manufacturing fields. The people in charge should have some knowledge of all the specialist fields and be able to provide a “big picture” perspective, whereas if specialists in only one field were in charge the view would be more narrow.
      Also, somewhat related to the topic, the Cooper Union School of Art has an interdisciplinary seminar. http://cuids.org/

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