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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: Hi Steven. Great question! As a scientist i find that some people tend to over-specialise and don't make an effort to get a holistic understanding of a situation. I don't think that is healthy. I.e. if you specialise in a particular field you should still have an open enough mind to be well read about the entire field atleast so you know your role in the bigger picture. That said I don't think the world will benefit from everyone being a Jack of All Trades, Master of None. We would get nowhere. Collaboration is the key and in order to collaborate we need to communicate. In the case of the muscles, while each type is specialised for different activities there is a control mechanism that sends signals depending on the activity being undertaken - it is in essence, collaboration. Everyone has a role to play in the bigger picture.
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      Mar 30 2012: Asha,

      Thank you very much for your reply, and I'm glad you enjoyed the question. I completely agree with you on the fact that we need both in society. Being too specialized and closed-minded will not allow you to experience where you fit in, or as you call it "see the big picture," bringing about stagnation. However, if everyone was just full of general knowledge, then individual fields would have trouble advancing without these "experts" to push them forwards. This is a quote by the economist and philosopher Henry Hazlitt which I thought agrees with your position that there is a problem to both if examined individually:

      "The dilemma is this. In the modern world knowledge has been growing so fast and so enormously, in almost every field, that the probabilities are immensely against anybody, no matter how innately clever, being able to make a contribution in any one field unless he devotes all his time to it for years. If he tries to be the Rounded Universal Man, like Leonardo da Vinci, or to take all knowledge for his province, like Francis Bacon, he is most likely to become a mere dilettante and dabbler. But if he becomes too specialized, he is apt to become narrow and lopsided, ignorant on every subject but his own, and perhaps dull and sterile even on that because he lacks perspective and vision and has missed the cross-fertilization of ideas that can come from knowing something of other subjects."
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      Mar 30 2012: Asha! Thank you so much for finding an even deeper analogy here between the idea of cooperation/collaboration and muscle contractions in the context of coordination!

      I suppose in whales, given their size coordination is even more important?

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