The Interdisciplinary Identity Crisis

Interestingly, between running experiments and preparing talks lately, I’ve been wondering a bit about the actual nature of what it is I do and the potential pitfalls of doing it. I’ve heard people speak before about the dreaded “interdisciplinary ravine” — a potential hazard of working between two different disciplines whereby you become so interwoven with both, that neither of the original disciplines can fully appreciate your work. In some cases (such as mine), this can actually spawn a new discipline. Occasionally more than one.

Evidently there’s more than one bridge across the inderdisciplinary divide. Lately, I’ve been wondering precisely which one I’m standing on. Simply, am I an astrochemist or a molecular astrophysicist? Now, I’m sure that might sound a bit like I’m splitting hairs. Allow me to elaborate…

– a branch of astronomy and chemistry dealing with the chemical composition and evolution of the universe and its parts.
– the study of the abundance and reactions of chemical elements and molecules in space, and their interaction with radiation
– the chemistry of stars and interstellar space.

Molecular Astrophysics
– the study of interstellar atoms and molecules and their interaction with radiation
– the study of [spectroscopic lines] from molecules in space.

(Various sources)

Evidently, both are very similar. Both rely on spectroscopy to examine molecular lines in starlight, and both require a sound knowledge of both astronomy and chemistry in order to work. The difference, seemingly, is in the application rather than the method. The only distinction would be whether you’re looking to understand the physics or the chemistry of interstellar space. My problem is that I aim to do both. Oh dear. No wonder I’m confused…

Perhaps I should be happy in the knowledge that these interdisciplinary subjects aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, it’s reassuring to know that I can hop from one to the other if need be. But what exactly does “interdisciplinary” even mean? And what about all of those other, similar sounding words that seem to get thrown around?

It’s a bit of a buzzword at the moment, and using it in research proposals can help to get you funded, but the intricacies of working between disciplines can be, at best, esoteric. Surprisingly, the Wikipedia article is quite informative (while still cautioning that these terms are still developing and thus the definitions are not yet universally accepted). Simply, it defines the following four terms:

An interdisciplinary community or project is made up of people from multiple disciplines and professions who are engaged in creating and applying new knowledge as they work together as equal stakeholders in addressing a common challenge.

An interdisciplinarary person is a person with degrees from one or more academic disciplines with additional interactional expertise in one or more additional academic disciplines, and new knowledge that is claimed by more than one discipline.

Multidisciplinarity is the act of joining together two or more disciplines without integration. Each discipline yields discipline specific results while any integration would be left to a third party observer.

A multidisciplinary person is a person with degrees from two or more academic disciplines, so one person can take the place of two or more people in a multidisciplinary community or project team.

Usage suggests that a transdisciplinary approach dissolves boundaries between disciplines. Most uses of the term suggest a deliberate and intentionally scandalous or transgressive violation of disciplinary rules, for the purpose of achieving new insight, or of expanding the discipline’s resources. A less polemic view of transdiciplinarity treats it as the act of taking theories and methods which exist independently of several disciplines and applying them to organize and understand different areas or fields.

A transdisciplinary community or project is made up of transdisciplinary professionals, which is an ideal that can only be approached and never achieved. A transdisciplinary professional has degrees in all disciplines as well as experience in all professions. In essence, a truly transdisciplinary person contains all the distributed knowledge of the people in the community or project as their individual common knowledge.

Crossdisciplinarity is the act of crossing disciplinary boundaries to explain one subject in the terms of another, foreign subject or method. Common examples of crossdisciplinary approaches are studies of the physics of music or the politics of literature.

So to summarise. Interdisciplinary refers to a symbiosis of more than one academic discipline, where both benefit from working together, and both claim the new knowledge obtained. Multidisciplinary is a bit more parasitic, where the disciplines work together but each only has it’s own interests at heart. Transdisciplinary refers to a philosophical ideal of being educated in all disciplines. A polymath, effectively. Crossdisciplinary is poaching someone else’s concepts and applying your own ideas to them.

Interesting. Very interesting. It would seem, therefore, that astrochemistry certainly meets the definition of interdisciplinary work. Both chemistry and astronomy are furthered in the process, and both seem to (at least mostly) work together quite well. Molecular astrophysics could be said to be similar, taking the principles of molecular spectroscopy and using them to further the understanding of astrophysics.

Unfortunately, despite all of this, I still haven’t managed to answer my own question. As I write this, I’m probably much more astrochemist than astrophysicist, though one of the ultimate goals of understanding the chemistry out there is to better understand the physics. My only whimsical conclusion is that if the person I’m sitting next to on a plane asks me what I do, I have an array of possible answers depending on how impressive I want to sound and whether or not I feel like having a conversation!

(Note: if you don’t feel like talking, say you’re a physicist. Most people will shun you. Including some physicists.)

About Invader Xan

Molecular astrophysicist, usually found writing frenziedly, staring at the sky, or drinking mojitos.
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10 Responses to The Interdisciplinary Identity Crisis

  1. invaderxan says:

    Well interestingly, astrophysics was originally an interdisciplinary field itself. Essentially, physicists decided to work on astronomical problems — with unbelievable success. In fact, you could argue that “astrophysics” is one of the most successful interdisciplinary fields of all time.
    Sadly, it would seem that rivalries do run pretty strongly between physical sciences and life sciences. The two have never exactly seen eye to eye. I don’t know who started the feud, but I’ve encountered some bio people in the past who were downright hostile.
    Mostly, chemists seem to sit somewhere in the middle looking slightly confused and passing messages back and forth… :P

  2. invaderxan says:

    Re: Say you are a physicist…
    Haha! US customs…? I’m intrigued — I haven’t heard that story… :)
    And self definition. I like that idea. Of course the downside would be that the number of people in your field would be reduced to one. Might make for some rather unexciting conferences!

  3. invaderxan says:

    The trouble is that molecular astrophysics in that regard, forgets to account for the fact that those things can cause chemistry to occur. Failure to account for that can cause inaccurate predictions in some environments…
    Though on readin your comment, I realised one very good example of molecular astrophysics. Star formation. Fluorescence from molecules in infrared and submillimetre wavelength ranges can allow energy to escape from a collapsing protostellar region, providing a cooling mechanism which facilitates the protostar’s gravitational collapse.
    But I’m digressing wildly now. I should probably write a blog entry about star formation sometime, where I can ramble about that to my heart’s content… :)

  4. invaderxan says:


  5. Are the astrophysicists generally interdisciplinary? I had a bunch of problems doing Biophysics. Nobody really knew what to do with me except for the Neuroscience guys. Neuro labs tend to have one each of a physicist, chemist, biologist, engineer and CS guy. But it was still rare to see someone who claimed to be a biophysicist. With Bioengineering getting more popular its a bit more common but those guys cant agree on what they mean either. The old rivalries are still there and pretty apparent. I even make a big deal that my degree is Physics-Biology, not the other way around.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Say you are a physicist…
    …or an astronomer, but never an astrophysicist! At least not at US customs, or so the urban legend goes. :-)
    May be you’re an astrochemical physicist? Or an astrophysical chemist? Why not just invent a whole new term for what you do? You can set your own definition then!

  7. moon_razor says:

    I generally view Astrochemistry as a study dealing primarily with chemical reactions and Molecular Astrophysics as dealing with molecules interacting with their environment via other means like shocks, UV excitation, etc. which don’t necessarily involve chemical reactions.

  8. Note: if you don’t feel like talking, say you’re a physicist. Most people will shun you. Including some physicists.)
    LOL how true! :D

  9. invaderxan says:

    Mission accomplished! Win and win! :D

  10. This post was informative and amused me. :D

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