Dialogue Across the Disciplines


About the Questions:

We invite students, staff, faculty, alumni, and community partners to submit questions in the form of abstracts.  Accepted question “abstracts” are posted below for students to review and present proposals. All questions are anonymous. However, the student (or group) will have the opportunity to meet the person who developed the question if their proposal, i.e Catalyst application, is accepted (assuming students did not submit a proposal for their own questions!). If a question below is of interest and you wish to submit a proposal, please complete this Catalyst survey.

Reconciling Interpretations of Origins of the Universe

How did the universe come into being? Humans have pondered this question for millennia and have tried to solve the question in various ways but especially by way of mythic explanations or scientific observations. Today this seemingly irreconcilable dualistic approach finds greatest tension between Creationism and Science. Proponents of the former argue for a literal interpretation of the opening chapters of Genesis, a narrative that purports to explain the process whereby the earth and universe came into being as a solitary act by God. Supporters of the latter, starting as early as the seventh century BCE in the West, have turned toward the observation of natural phenomenon to explain a gradual process whereby the universe came into being. But a look at Genesis, other mythic accounts of the origin of the universe from different cultures (Ancient Egyptian, Greek, Asian, Native American, African, etc), and scientific explanations shows that all are forms of narrative based on belief and as yet unproven hypotheses. Is there a way of bridging the gap between mythic and scientific etiologies by exposing the observational nature of myth and faith in a scientific narrative and exploring the underlying methodologies of each approach to the question? Is there greater commonality than is currently imagined?

The One Word Essay: Consciousness

Until 2010, candidates for admission to the most prestigious of all of Oxford University's colleges, All Souls, were required to respond to what has been termed the "hardest essay question in the world," the one-word essay. As part of their entrance exam, candidates were given a single word and invited to write about it from a variety of points of view: scientific, philosophical, literary, histrorical, and potentially even comic. Respondents were expected to exercise their imagination and venture beyond traditional disciplinary constraints and patterns of thought. The present question asks precisely the same thing of those who undertake it. Rather than proscribing a particular approach, it leaves open to those pursuing the investiagtion the means, manner, and ultimate goal of the inquiry in question. The single word in this instance is "consciousness."

Reinventing Interdisciplinary Innovation

Innovation is often offered as a both as a solution to society’s problems and the gateway to future growth. However, there is increasing discussion that genuine innovation may be slowing due to a number of factors including: badly designed regulations, vested interests committed to the status quo, reduced support for basic research, increased educational requirements for researchers, emphasis on short term results, and substitution of dogma for reason. Meanwhile the world’s problems keep growing. The goal of this effort is to design and implement a project (e.g. literature study, experiments, computer simulation, field studies, case study, etc.) that would offer some insights (quantitative if possible) into how the rate of growth in the world’s problems compares to the rate of growth in genuine innovation necessary to solve these problems.

Welcome to the Anthropocene - Adapting to climate induced disruptions on a global scale

How can we empower grassroots actions to transform the debate into a dialogue about mitigating and adapting to climate change?

For the first time in the history of the planet humans are causing changes on a global scale - the Anthropocene. Scientists discovered global climate change, identified its human origins, and are forecasting change to every corner of the globe. There is overwhelming consensus about the facts underpinning our knowledge of climate change. Powerful forces are aligned against implementing changes necessary to mitigate climate impacts. By introducing fear, uncertainty, and doubt about scientists’ motives, complexity and uncertainty have been turned into disagreement, undermining the public’s understanding and belief in climate science.

Climate deniers, in their many forums, are deflecting the public discourse from what should be done about climate change to whether climate change is real. How can a dialog across disciplines empower grassroots actions to recapture the initiative and turn the debate back to mitigating and adapting to climate change? A first step is to give broad access to the often complex and sometimes perplexing science of climate change, in all its disciplines(1). Beyond the natural sciences, we can learn from history how past civilizations succumbed to climate change(2)and we can even examine how the human brain limits our ability to process complex problems in a moral context(3). But perhaps more importantly, we can explore how artists and musicians can work with scientists to extend the expression of hard facts to emotional and intellectual enrichment(4,5).

  1. GlobalChange 
  2. Wright, Karen. 2008. Empires in the Dust Discover Magazine.
  3. Markowitz, E.M. and Azim F. Shariff. 2012. Climate Change and Moral Judgement. NATURE CLIMATE CHANGE. VOL 2. APRIL 2012
  4. The confluence of art and science in conveying the uncertainties of climate change
  5. A Composer Attuned to the Earth’s Swirling Motion

Eliminating Gerrymandering and Equalizing Political Distribution

One factor often cited for the dysfunctional government in Washington is the gerrymandering of congressional districts. Another adverse side effect of gerrymandering is the tendency to effectively disfranchise people not in the congresspersons’ party. The goal of this project is to develop (or expand on current work) an objective computer algorithm that eliminates gerrymandering and demonstrates an implementation of the algorithm on any state of the teams choosing. One important criterion for the algorithm is that configuration of the resulting district would oblige congresspeople to give equal weight to the needs of ALL the communities of interest in their district and not just focus their ‘base’.

Submitting Proposals For Questions

If any of the above questions spark an innovative idea and you wish to pursue further solutions to the questions, please fill out the Proposal Catalyst survey and we will contact you shortly!