May 07, 2003

The Grey Area

It is remarkable that I have gotten this far without introducing the following diagram. I call it a disciplinary map and use it to help me think about how to design interdisciplinary teams to address Earth systems problems.

The traditional disciplinary organization of the university is represented by the lobes in the figure. My own discipline, geophysics, maps into the blue lobe along with the other physical sciences such as physics and chemistry. The magenta lobe represents the life science which primarily are biology and medicine. These two lobes together make up what is traditionally thought of as the Natural sciences. The yellow lobe labeled "Human Processes" is the region of Simon's artificial and contains the social sciences, engineering and the humanities. At the intersections of the main lobes are regions that represent interdisciplinary enterprises. Of particular notice is that I map ecology into the purple region between physical and biological processes.

Begin Aside
Exercise for the reader: Where does mathematics map?
End Aside

An example of how problems might progress through the diagram as we learn more about how Earth works is provided by climate change. The problem of increasing CO2 concentration in the atmosphere was first noticed by atmospheric chemists (blue lobe). Understanding the resulting greenhouse warming requires understanding both the CO2 chemistry of the atmosphere and the human processes associated with fossil fuel burning (yellow lobe) and thus maps into the green region. Continuing on with the problem to understand the resulting impacts and the carbon system as a whole requires that we also understand the biological systems that sequester and otherwise move carbon around; this is an Earth systems problem and maps into the grey area.

As you move from the edges of the diagram to the center, interactions among process studied by different disciplines become increasingly important. As we progress we need to work in all regions of the diagram, but as human impacts on the functioning of Earth systems become increasingly important, we must pay increasing attention to the grey areas.