Exploring the Possibilities of Interdisciplinarity at Tällberg

06/27/2012 10:55 am ET | Updated Aug 27, 2012

Tällberg is a tiny Swedish village situated on Lake Silja, produced in its own big bang by a meteor some 365 million years ago. The now-idyllic area still reverberates, intellectually that is, as the site of the Tällberg Forum, the brainchild of the dynamic Bo Ekman, always full of ideas, wisdom and fabulous conversation on just about anything.

Straightaway upon arriving in Tällberg I joined in a dinner chaired by Bo where we launched into the forum's principal themes: What future lies beyond the imagination? Through creativity, can we glimpse a reality beyond appearances? What can the evolution of technology and how humans have dealt with it tell us about the future? How can we deal with interdisciplinarity in an increasingly interdisciplinary world? The conversations continued for the next four days, punctuated by scrumptious food, lubricated with copious wine and accompanied with music that ranged over jazz, folk and classical -- with the circle widening each day. I arrived knowing no one except Bo, and departed with many new friends and colleagues; such is the Tällberg aura.

The mix of attendees included those in banking, business, creativity studies, economics, entrepeneuring, globalisation, music, politics, as well as cutting-edge science and technology. A veritable feast of ideas. The forum's overriding theme -- its Ariadne's thread -- was interdisciplinarity, a theme I have thought a great deal about. Everyone agreed that today the boundaries are blurring between science and technology -- in universities there are departments of engineering science, and fields such as bio-technology, quantum computing, quantum encryption and nanotechnology.

In the plenary session, and one on creativity, I discussed how boundaries are blurring between art and science, how it is that at the moment of creativity artists think like scientists and scientists like artists -- Einstein and Picasso being excellent examples. I went further to suggest that in the highly interdisciplinary 21st century, art and science will fuse to make a Third Culture. I imagine that denizens of this Third Culture will produce theories with accompanying imagery that will be deemed aesthetic in the new and yet-to-be-determined meaning of this term. This topic always provokes intense debates. Among the points of disagreement is that art is art and science is science and the twain will never meet. One of my responses against this view is that we must let our imaginations roam. Who, even 30 years ago, would have imagined that science, technology and art would be as they are today?

It is too often the case that conversations on creativity plummet to new lows. Conversely, the one at Tällberg was a grown-up discussion which ranged far, wide and deep, over a spectrum that included art, science, technology and business. A point I raised is the importance of solitude in creative thinking. While 'group think' and open offices are all the rage, it is often the case that people have to be alone at the moment of discovery, slugging it out one on one with nature. Indeed, the value of lateral thinking sessions has been questioned. There can be, however, industrial situations where the problem is a 'sweet one', one that, if enough people and money are thrown at it, can be solved. A paradigmatic example is, of course, the Manhattan Project that produced the atomic bomb. Other examples were brought up that involve the design and production of automobiles, for example, as people involved with Volvo explained.

In the conversation on technology I recalled the history of the two industrial revolutions with the realization of disappearing sources, such as fossil fuels, and increased dependence on nuclear energy with its attendant difficulties, such as what to do with radioactive waste products, along with climate change and pollution of the oceans. The consensus was that, for the moment, nuclear energy is the most viable source, if reactors are maintained properly, with as little dependence on human interaction as is possible. The Holy Grail remains fusion energy, which mimics how the sun produces light -- that is, by fusing together hydrogen nuclei. This energy source leaves behind a small radioactive waste footprint, compared to the massive debris from today's nuclear reactors which operate by splitting heavy nuclei such as uranium.

A spin-off of interdisciplinarity in the worlds of art, science and technology is the blurring of national boundaries as well. Only in this way, for example, can the United Nations deal effectively with emergencies such as the one in Syria. We heard this discussed by a variety of well-placed people, most notably Jan Eliason, who was about to become Deputy Secretary General of the UN.

In the conversation session on technology and the future of the world, I could not avoid opening up the proceedings to include the universe itself. After all, were we not in Sweden, the land of existential angst? I reminded everyone that no matter what energy source we agree upon for the future, alas, our solar system will be cooked in about five billion years. At that point our sun will have used up its nuclear energy; its outer layers will lift off and spread out to our planet, frying everything on it. So we will have to out of here before then. Angst doesn't end there -- in some trillions of years all the useful energy in our universe will have been expended and the lights, so to speak, will go out everywhere. Our only recourse will be to move to another universe. According to the current theory of the multiverse, new universes are being created all the time.

I hope I have given some of the flavour of what went on in Tällberg, where discussions went on deep into evening, fuelled by the midnight sun.