Friday, August 09, 2013

Science and Humanities . . . Together!

Professor Choe Jae-chun
Photo by Kim Myung-sub
The Korea Herald

Professor Choe Jae-chun, interviewed by Oh Kyu-wook in "An evangelist of science, humanities convergence" (The Korea Herald, August 8, 2013), reminds me why I chose history of science for my graduate degrees:
Choe's talent crosses disciplines. The renowned animal behavior expert, ecologist and bio-sociologist has built a career far beyond the stereotypes of a scientist.

He first came to prominence in 2005 by introducing Korea to the concept of consilience -- linking together principles from different disciplines -- after translating "Consilience: the Unity of Knowledge" (1998) by Edward O. Wilson, the doyen of sociobiology, under whom he studied at Harvard.

Trumpeted as a map to a Theory of Everything, Wilson's magnum opus describes the synthesis of knowledge from different fields and gave a fresh impetus to interdisciplinary studies in Korea's academia in which high walls divided natural, social and human sciences, blocking collaboration and progression.
I'm totally in favor of cross-disciplinary communication, even collaboration when possible, but the risk is that one discipline will attempt to dominate (and guess which one when sociobiology's one of the disciplines!). At its best, however, the cross-disciplinary effort is uplifting:
Choe was named a junior fellow of the Michigan Society of Fellows and taught at the University of Michigan from 1992 to 1994. He said his three years in Michigan were among the best times of his life.

"There were about 12 junior fellows, all with different backgrounds, when I was there. We had lunch together every Wednesday, and every time we discussed different subjects."

"One day we brought up the question of why the middle class exists. We couldn't finish the discussion after lunch and continued it until 2 a.m. the next morning."

He said he realized the importance of integrated studies while discussing more than 200 subjects with his fellow scholars.

"I really miss that time. I wish we could do the same thing here," he said.
Although I never took part in a discussion that lasted fourteen hours, I've often participated in long, wide-ranging conversation on various topics, both as an undergraduate student in Baylor University's Honors Program and as a graduate student in UC Berkeley's History of Science Office, so I know very well what Professor Choe misses.

Sometime, perhaps, Professor Choe Jae-chun can preside over long conversations at Ewha Womans University, where he teaches, and if those conversation take place in English, I would hope to be there among the discussants . . .

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