Published 25 June 2011 by

When different fields collide

How do you put a price on inspiration? I don’t believe you can. That elusive feeling is invaluable for the hundreds of medical and physiology researchers from around the world that are swooping into town for the 61st Lindau meetings in Germany. How can being surrounded by 23 Nobel Laureates not be inspiring? And, I expect that the stimulus goes both ways – a panel of up-and-coming scientists that will be quizzed by the Nobel Laureates in a turn of the tables.

But, although encouragement and awe is difficult to measure, it is a truism that the combination of different scientific fields can create new breakthroughs and new technologies, or even birth whole new fields. This phenomenon is called cross-pollination. An apt metaphor, because in the vast majority of cases, the seed from cross-pollinated plants are ‘more vigorous’ than from a self-pollinated plant.

NASA scientists agree in a podcast that future space exploration needs the ideological cross-pollination of scientists from different fields. They say that without the sharing, technologies such as the microwave wouldn’t have been invented.

The microwave was not invented by experts in thermodynamics, but originated from the work of scientists during WW2 to use microwaves for radar. It wasn’t known that microwaves could cook food until 1945, when Percy Spencer realised that standing infront of a magnetron melted his chocolate bar.

A more recent example is the physician Deborah Rhodes, who has worked with a nuclear physicist called Michael O’Connor to invent low-radiation gamma Molecular Breast Imaging technology. The MBI machine might be ready in five years, after more testing.

I watched her tell the remarkable story of how the innovation came about at TED – you can see the talk below. She says the solution was: “The serendipitous collision of my patient’s problem with a physicist’s solution. I was introduced to a nuclear physicist named Michael O’ Connor, who was a specialist in cardiac imaging… Michael told me about a new type of gamma detector made of a thin layer of a semi-conductor material. I started talking to him about the problems of breast density and we realized we might to get this detector close enough around the breast to find small tumors. After putting together a grid of these cube together with tape, Michel hacked of the x-ray plate of a mammography machine that was about to be thrown out. We attached the new detector, and we called the new machine MBI.

We were trying to take on the entrenched world of mammography with a machine held together by duct tape.”

I love this story. Radiologists using mammography discover, at best, a 60 per cent of tumors surrounded by dense tissue, and two thirds of women in their forties have dense breast tissue. But in the 2011 pilot study by Rhodes’ team, they found molecular imaging was three times better than mammography at revealing these hard to find tumors. Also, the MBI machine is much less painful than an MRI scan.

With further study, MBI could lead to a revolution in not only diagnosis, but monitoring the size of tumour during chemotherapy and even possibly determining women’s individual risk of getting breast cancer.

How can you replicate this kind of cross-pollination of scientific ideas? A paper on the seeding of the ‘nanobio’ industry from nanotech and biotech tests the hypothesis that if an idea originating from two disciplines is mentioned in a scientific paper, it is more likely to become part of a new technology, and more likely to be commercialised. The researchers, led by Stine Grodal from Stanford University found via a review of literature, patents and press releases that their hypothesis rang true for the nanobiotech industry.

The researchers write: “The emergence of new research based organizational fields drives both scientific progress and economic growth. Yet our knowledge of field emergence is limited. This paper shows how the cross-pollination of ideas between nanotechnology and biotechnology yielded a new subfield – nanobiotechnology. The growth of the nanobio subfield exceeds the growth within both nanotechnology and biotechnology.”

But how to get people together for the cross-pollination to occur? In Malcolm Gladwell’s view of innovation, taken from a New Yorker article, it involves getting a bunch of people in a room who have different perspectives and getting them brainstorming. He cites Intellectual Ventures, the invention and patent spinning company, as an example of how fruitful this approach can be:

“It was the dinosaur-bone story all over again. You sent a proper search team into territory where people had been looking for a hundred years, and, lo and behold, there’s a T. rex tooth the size of a banana. Ideas weren’t precious. They were everywhere, which suggested that maybe the extraordinary process that we thought was necessary for invention—genius, obsession, serendipity, epiphany— wasn’t necessary at all.”

However, meeting online can be an alternative to meeting face-to-face. About five years ago, Quirky launched and created a compelling model for designing inventions by harnessing the power of social media. (Watch their collaborative manifesto via @caspertk). It seems that what is most important for cross-pollination – be it in cyberspace or meatspace – is the meeting of minds.