Published 11 July 2024 by Benjamin Skuse

Can Scientific Thinking and Cross-Disciplinarity Save the World?

Saul Perlmutter in conversation with Stefan H.E. Kaufmann, council member Lindau Meetings.

Like quarks, talks in Lindau come in many different flavours. There are the straightforward Laureate Lectures where presenters describe the work for which they were awarded their Nobel Prize. There are the curveball lectures, where the Laureate might submit a title and abstract and then proceed to speak about something completely different. There are panel discussions, often focusing on key issues in the Laureate’s given discipline or perhaps science more broadly. But sometimes, the most inspiring and fascinating talks are those in which the Laureates describe the work they are doing right now. And with the financial and scientific freedom a Nobel Prize affords, this work is often a passion project of the greatest scientific or societal import.

Saul Perlmutter laughing
Agora Talk Saul Perlmutter

Saul Perlmutter’s Agora Talk on Tuesday 2 July entitled ‘The Other Way That Science Can Save the World: Scientific Thinking for All’ is the perfect example of a presentation focused on such a high-impact passion project. US astrophysicist Perlmutter received the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics alongside Brian Schmidt and Adam Riess for providing evidence that the expansion of the universe is accelerating. His Lindau talk barely mentioned this world-shattering work.

Instead, Perlmutter enthusiastically described research starting in 2011 with philosopher John Campbell and psychologist Robert MacCoun at the University of California, Berkeley, to develop methods that can help students, and society more broadly, think about big problems and make effective decisions in our increasingly polarised and complex world.

From this, they created a multidisciplinary course at Berkeley, teaching students ideas, tools and approaches used by scientists to understand the world. And more recently, the three researchers published a book Third Millenium Thinking: Creating sense in a world of nonsense describing what they have learned and providing a roadmap for navigating day-to-day challenges in our personal, professional and political lives.

“We’ve long known that scientists have a responsibility to talk to the societies that they live in, and to educate them as well so that they understand what the results are of science and how it has implications for policy,” he explained. “But I think one thing we have not taken as seriously is … trying to explain and teach the processes, the mechanisms of science.”

Scientific Thinking

Perlmutter argued that perhaps the greatest gift science can give society is a new scientific way of thinking, applying the scientific method to making decisions on problems that have nothing to do with science. In an attempt to provide order to these thoughts, Perlmutter and his collaborators selected a group of people around the university and worked for nine months with them to distil the bare minimum number of ideas from the scientific method that could act as a vocabulary to ask questions with. The result is a small group of habits we can take up individually and collectively to better navigate the modern world.

“Some of the techniques have to do with probabilistic thinking… almost no proposition is absolutely true or false, almost everything comes with some degree of probability,” he said. “We tend to be comfortable with the idea that most of the propositions we hold, we hold with some degree of uncertainty, and that’s actually a very useful tool in the world, because it allows you to use [incomplete] knowledge, not just yes or no knowledge.”

Also useful and quite foreign to those outside science is the idea of directly engaging with those who disagree with you. “We live in a culture of other scientists who help us figure out when we’re wrong and help us get it right,” explained Perlmutter. “We’ve learned to live in a group where people will look for what’s wrong with each other’s arguments, and in the end you really need the people who you disagree with, to help you figure out where you’re going wrong.”

Another part of the scientific method that can be applied to everyday life is scientific optimism. “I think people generally have this tendency to give up way too soon. In science, mostly things going wrong, and you just have to stick with it long enough until you figure out how to make something go right,” said Perlmutter. “These are things that science helps us with in a different way than just teaching biology, chemistry and physics.”

The Baton Passes to the Next Generation

Another format for Lindau Lectures that often inspires and informs is the Next Gen Science sessions, where Young Scientists are given the opportunity to present their work. “Cross-Disciplinary Research in Physics” on Wednesday, 3 July, showcased the research of seven scientists from across the globe in a quick-fire succession of 10-minute presentations.

Samantha Grist
Samantha Grist

First up was Samantha Grist from the University of British Columbia, Canada. Her research focuses on developing silicon photonic biosensors, and she is currently working on a project to develop cost-effective and accurate biosensors to monitor and treat the menopausal transition at the point of care. The work is inherently multidisciplinary, she explained, connecting experts in silicon photonics with researchers focused on electronics, microfluidics, chemical functionalisation, immunoassay development and biomedical engineering. It is hoped that the culmination of this collaboration will see Grist’s silicon photonic sensor approach introduced for quantitative, accurate, data-rich measurements of hormones, with tens to hundreds of biosensors integrated on a single millimetre-scale chip.

Next to the stage was Lauritz Hahn, École normale supérieure de Paris, France. His work attempts to extract dynamical information from biochemical signalling networks. The young researcher explained that biological cells encode information about their environment through biochemical signalling networks that control their internal state and response. This information is often encoded in the dynamical patterns of the signalling molecules, rather than just their instantaneous concentrations. Analytically calculating the information contained in these dynamics should lead to a better understanding of biochemical signalling.

Three medical physics presentations followed, each highlighting research representing significant advances in important health areas. The first by Mosidi Mokoena of the University of Cape Town, South Africa, aims to apply loop-mediated isothermal amplification (LAMP), a technique for analysing RNA and DNA, to tuberculosis (TB) diagnosis. “The smartphone technology we have successfully developed using simulated LAMP for detecting TB …[is] a game changer in disease control,” said Mokoena.

Mats Persson
Mats Persson

Meanwhile, Mats Persson of KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden, told the audience about his development of next-generation photon-counting computed tomography detector technology. This technology promises images with better diagnostic quality and improved capability to measure tissue composition, and at lower doses of radiation for the patient. 

The final medical physics talk was given by Christina Stengl of the German Cancer Research Center. Stengl is attempting to improve pancreatic cancer therapy with a technology called carbon ion mini-beams. “The problem with radiotherapy, especially with photons, is that the cancer is not reacting to it,” she explained. “Therefore, we need new therapy methods, and one of them could be carbon min-ion beams.”

The last two presentations of the session were dedicated to arguably the greatest challenge of our time: climate change. Nico Wunderling of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Germany, is most interested in climate tipping points if society does not reach its climate targets, and when, what and how severe the consequences will be. “If we were to surpass 2 degrees Celsius warming, then we would be crossing what I would call a physical limit for climate tipping risks,” he explained. “Overshooting climate targets means increased risks for planetary stability.”

73rd Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, 03.07.2024: Next Gen Science: Physics-based Solutions to the Energy Challenge
Claire Yung

Last but not least, Claire Yung of The Australian National University is working on more accurately measuring another important indicator of climate change: Antarctic ice shelf melt. “Sea level will rise in the future, but there are still uncertainties for us,” she told the audience. “So understanding and simulating small-scale physics in the ocean is important for climate and sea level predictions.”

Though eclectic in terms of topical content, each project presented shared the characteristic of being highly multidisciplinary, highlighting how the most important problems facing science and society are highly complex and multifaceted, increasingly calling for such an approach. Knowing Young Scientists are working in such a manner provides some assurance that the world’s biggest challenges can be overcome.

Benjamin Skuse

Benjamin Skuse is a professional freelance writer of all things science. In a previous life, he was an academic, earning a PhD in Applied Mathematics from the University of Edinburgh and MSc in Science Communication. Now based in the West Country, UK, he aims to craft understandable, absorbing and persuasive narratives for all audiences – no matter how complex the subject matter. His work has appeared in New Scientist, Sky & Telescope, BBC Sky at Night Magazine, Physics World and many more.