It has been said that those who see and tackle the big questions are those outside the core discipline. Take Alfred Wegener for example, of continental drift fame, he was a meteorologist by trade yet his contribution to geology (perhaps not in his life time) was far greater. If you live firmly within the paradigms and norms of a discipline it is hard to think heretical thoughts and to question fundamental principles. This is one argument for the power of multidisciplinary research and education.
I got my PhD in Edinburgh way back in 1991 working with Geoffrey Boulton and David Sugden two of the leading glacial geomorphologists of their generation. A PhD is an academic calling card and a big deal at the time, but I have never really used the title and I am still Mister Mister Bennett according the bank. I like what my PhD stands for however, Doctor of Philosophy, and in my case natural philosophy.
Natural philosophy is rather a dated term but is one that is powerful in an age where cross-disciplinary science holds many of the answers. It derives from the Latin philosophia naturalis and is the study of nature and the physical universe. It is considered to be the precursor of natural science and has its origins with Aristotle.
It has been superseded by the modern concept of ‘science’ with its multiple often isolating pigeonholes such as ecology, biology, chemistry, physics, geology, geography, archaeology and so on. Yet our world is holistic in which earth systems are linked across many disciplines. To understand these systems one needs to take a holistic multidisciplinary view, just as Alfred Wegener did. So I like the idea of being a natural philosopher because it stresses the value of inter-disciplinary study essential to understanding a holistic system.
My first degree is in Physical Geography (London, 1988) and I come from a line of geographers, but in truth I have worked across many disciplines in the last 26 years. Students like to identify with a subject: we are Geographers why do we need to do chemistry or all this geology nonsense? The truth is that to understand the natural workings of our physical environment, past, present and future we need a broad grounding in multidisciplinary science and to have the tools to communicate with other specialists. So being a geographer is something to be proud off, but let’s not confine ourselves to just one pigeon hole!
Picture credit: By Frederik de Wit – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons. Scanned by Janke, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2171890