As a researcher in academia, one gets to visit different cities and campuses, giving talks and seminars to students, colleagues and sometimes (the more courageous among us) the public. Describing the science that takes place in your laboratory is not an easy process, however, in particular because the audience has a lot of expectations and so what you say always needs to be clear and exciting, despite your thinking that you've delivered this particular lecture 50 times already. I guess singers on tour must feel even worse, but at least they stop performing regularly when they reach a certain age. But every now and then comes a seminar that feels different from the others. A few weeks ago I experienced one of these moments. It wasn't that I thought my talk was better or more interesting than usual, or because there was a huge audience to make me feel exhilarated and humbled. It was because this was one of the rare occasions when I felt I was truly bridging the gap between fields of science that normally do not interact, and that sometimes antagonise each other.
Giving a lecture about nanomedicine to philosophers and sociologists at the philosophy department of Paris 1, more famously known as the Sorbonne, was an experience genuinely different and somewhat unnerving.
I always liked strolling past the Sorbonne when I found myself in
In fact, this makes perfect sense. New technologies are powerful and potentially enhance our capacity to do more things in a better way, so the use of such technologies in medicine will have a direct impact on society. We live in an era in which we feel the strong sociological and psychological impact of information technology, wireless communication, networks etc. These were beginning to become powerful new technologies in the 60s and 70s. Similarly, we should expect the impact of nanotechnology to be felt by society in the next few decades, whether it's high-efficiency solar panels to heat our homes or implantable microchips to monitor our blood pressure. So, of course social scientists should be interested.
Which raises the following question that resonated in my head throughout my couple of days at the Sorbonne: why is there such a chasm between the physical and biomedical sciences and the humanities? I cannot remember any compulsory course on ethics, philosophy or political science in more than 25 years as a student or teaching faculty member at any of the schools I have been associated with – chemistry, chemical engineering, pharmacy, medicine.
It does not make any sense. Why don't we want our physical and biological scientists to be familiar and appreciative of the sociological impact of their expert knowledge and future inventions? Why don't we want our humanities scientists to be knowledgeable and well versed in the new technological advancements taking place that will impact future societies? Why do we create campuses that have rigid and well-defended silos between the different sciences? And more importantly, why do we create scientists with silos in their perception about their future role in society?
I took the Eurostar back to
We should overcome the false notion that humanities have no role in modern society other than to comment on the past, and free physical scientists from the traditional label of the "technical expert" with no connection to more abstract philosophical thinking.
We should remind everyone that a PhD stands for "doctor of philosophy". Are we gradually losing the "philosophy" from this title we award?
If my dream comes true, maybe we will be able to better predict the impact of our creative inventions and powerful technologies and avoid mistakes such as the devastating use of nuclear weaponry. Maybe we will be able to offer our youngsters a more fulfilling educational experience, and maybe we will be able to train more rounded scientists who are thinkers and not "specialists".
Maybe after all, interacting with a "nano-philosopher" will benefit every one of us more than a pleasant stroll past the Sorbonne.
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