Meet your next-generation superheroes
By Moriba Jah|April 2021
A new scientific revolution, let’s call it the Renaissance Encore, is gestating after being conceived by transdisciplinarity, a holistic fusion of seemingly unrelated professional specialties across disciplinary boundaries.
You’ll recognize a transdisciplinary solution when you struggle to identify the individual disciplinary contributions to it. The main driver behind the Renaissance Encore is the need to solve wicked problems, meaning those that can’t be solved in the traditional ways due to contradictory information, incomplete data and competing interests.
Keeping order in the near Earth space environment is a great example of a wicked problem. The behavior of constituents, such as satellite owners and operators, are difficult to model and predict. We don’t know, for example, how a particular company or agency would react to a given hazard or odds of a collision. Some might order evasive action; others might stay put. An aerospace engineer alone couldn’t solve that problem.
While transdisciplinarity is gestating, most folks in the space community still tend to stay within their respective disciplines and educational or job comfort zones. Until we change that, we won’t be able to solve the space domain’s wicked problems. This tendency of researchers and workers to stay within a specific discipline is a remnant of the original Renaissance that began in the 14th century. Sir Isaac Newton focused mainly on mathematics and physics, developing what we know as calculus and coming up with laws of physical motion. In order to achieve this, he didn’t need to practice law or be an anthropologist. Galileo Galilei performed gravity experiments at the tower of Pisa and subscribed to a heliocentric view of planetary motion, a conclusion he could reach just by staying within his discipline. In fact, for the most part, the changes in societal views during the Renaissance, such as Earth’s place in the cosmos, came as a consequence of developments in and a convergence of specific disciplines, rather than through transdisciplinarity.
In the space domain, embracing transdisciplinarity would require managers to be well rounded. They must be willing to reach across disciplinary boundaries to bring in experts on everything from astrodynamics to space law and policy. From the outside, such disciplines may seem to be mutually orthogonal, but in the context of solving a wicked problem, they are linked.
Unfortunately, our current scientific culture does not adequately value transdisciplinarity and those who seek to practice it. For this to change, academia must sow and nurture the concept, for instance, by permitting a dual degree in government and engineering. Likewise, industry must see value in those graduates with this training.
As an example, let’s look at trying to mitigate an orbital collision between a pair of satellites. A solution may need the following: (a) someone who studies the space weather and environment, (b) an astrodynamicist who understands how this space weather influences the motion of objects in space, (c) an orbit determination analyst who understands the astrodynamics and can take sensor data gathered on these objects to infer their statistical trajectories, (d) a space lawyer who knows the general rules the satellite operators might be subject to in defining their liability if damage were to occur, (e) a social scientist who can provide cultural context to how the satellite operators might interpret a common space law or policy, and more. There are no naturally occurring situations under which this group of experts spanning disparate disciplines would likely assemble and work concurrently on a transdisciplinary solution.
To be sure, transdisciplinarians will unlikely reach the technical depths of the stove-piped scientist or lawyer or policymaker, but they don’t need to. Transdisciplinarians will be able to synthesize concurrent multidisciplinary inputs and will have sufficient expertise in several of them to know how to execute, guide and direct solutions to a meaningful conclusion. Although transdisciplinarians have yet to be globally embraced, I’ll continue to identify them and work on creating a welcoming and nurturing home for these unsung superheroes of the Renaissance Encore.