Dr Gange's amazing intellectual adventure

What might a historian succeed in gleaning from equation-laden explanations of time in quantum gravity? Dr David Gange (School of History and Cultures)

The University Based Institutes of Advanced Study (UBIAS) Intercontinental Academia on the topic of Time, April 17-29 2015

USP-BrazilThe University of São Paulo (USP) meeting of UBIAS (University Based Institutes of Advanced Studies) marked the opening of a new IAS experiment: the Intercontinental Academy. This has been set up to run a series of year-long themed projects, with this first year devoted to the theme of time. Having begun in São Paulo in April, this pioneering project 'Intercontinental Academia: Time' will end in Nagoya in March 2016.

Although most of my career has involved working across disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, this project posed an entirely new challenge: an interdisciplinary venture that drew no distinctions between natural sciences, social sciences and humanities. The team of 13 'young researchers from around the world' (with uniquely academic generosity, that meant anyone under 40) comprised one mathematician, a chronobiologist, a marine biologist, a pharmacologist, an educational psychologist, a psychologist/neuroscientist, a philosopher, two historians, a literary scholar, a historian of art, an architectural historian and a zoologist. Other fields - including physics, cosmology, ecology, economics, anthropology and music - were represented by senior scholars who contributed workshops and lectures.

The scale of this interdisciplinarity did make me apprehensive before travelling to Brazil (I was uncertain what a historian might succeed in gleaning from equation-laden explanations of time in quantum gravity). This apprehension wasn't confined to the 'young researchers' but was felt most keenly by the four senior directors.

martin-grossmanThese scholars, co-ordinated by the Director of USP IEA, Professor Martin Grossman and advised by a Senior Committee invested a great deal of academic capital in the project. Some faced deep scepticism from colleagues concerning the plausibility of meaningful collaboration across the supposed science/humanities divide. Understandably, this initially caused caution in handing control to the young researchers and it was only in the second week that we got down to intensive discussion among ourselves and began to formulate our year-long venture. By the end of the first week we'd learnt a great deal, but still had little sense of whether our interdisciplinarity would work.

At that point, we felt some frustration at not having dug into detailed collaborative discussion. Looking back, however, the directors' logic is clearer. Alongside 16 specialist lectures and workshops, they'd put on a spectacular array of city tours and social events. They'd engendered an atmosphere that was collegial and intensely social. We'd got to know one another surprisingly well having spent many long evenings exploring Sao Paulo. This soon made an astonishing difference: without this sense of togetherness, I think our intellectual discussions would have flowed less freely and got less far.

USP-meet

And the discussions really did work. Two things amazed me. Firstly, that there was never any irritability about intellectual disagreements. Since all of us were outside our comfort zones, everyone endeavoured to understand how different perspectives worked, rather than merely asserting the ideas of a pet theorist, as can happen in more familiar disciplinary contexts. The second surprise was the particular manifestations of disagreements over big issues (for example, the reality or unreality of time, or A series and B series models): there would frequently be historians and biologists on each side of the debate. At no point did disciplinary boundaries, or even the distinction between sciences and humanities, seem to define the answers people came to: we never seemed to speak wholly different academic languages. Having a carefully-selected philosopher on hand to analyse and untangle the nature of our own disagreements undoubtedly helped.

USP-talk

By the day of our closing report, it felt like we'd come an extraordinary way in two weeks. We'd decided on several projects for the year ahead, including publications but also an expansive online guide to conceptualising time. And we'd argued our way to an intellectual framework that we think can ground our work. This involved producing eighteen conceptual subdivisions of the project, each beginning from a question such as 'why is the present special?' or 'what traces does time leave?', and each with the potential for input from all our disciplines.

The hard work is still to be done, but two weeks in Sao Paulo seemed to prove that hard work really can be conducted in collaboration between distant disciplines. The most difficult part, perhaps, is getting scholars from those disciplines into the same room to begin with.

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