U s ually when I tell people that I am studying chemistry and fine arts, they respond by turning their head at a funny angle and saying something like, “That’s an interesting combination,” along with a comment about the lack of overlap between the subjects. They often then inquire about the practical use of the combination, suggesting science textbook illustration or art restoration.
This reaction encapsulates a major flaw in how we are taught to think. Rather than embrace the world as a uniform place to understand, we are encouraged from an early age to partition the world into autonomous bits and consider each portion separately. The area outside the home is different from the area inside the home. The Atlantic Ocean is different from the Pacific. Math is different from history. Art is different from academics.
Society sets up barriers between perceived parts of the world, and we tend to simply accept them without a second thought. The human mind finds comfort in organization and in a world of cubicles. However, the compartmentalization of our world is a major impediment to progress.
By dividing up the world, we turn it into a place of disunity in which knowledge is developed in narrow, unconnected channels. We tend to celebrate this specificity as desirable and aesthetically pleasing. Children are taught at an early age that they must “grow up” to fill some kind of cookie cutter position: a firefighter, a police officer, an astronaut, a lawyer, a doctor and so on.
In limiting our development to an incredibly narrow band of knowledge, we end up blocking out most of the world in favor of our one small specialty. But in order to truly understand it, we must tear down the arbitrary barriers that society has imposed upon it. By considering the world in its entirety, a more comprehensive program of thinking is possible in which collective thought replaces narrow thought.
Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso illustrate the merits of collective thinking. While Einstein was publishing his theory of relativity, Picasso was painting his cubist canvases. Both relativity and cubism have had profound and lasting effects on our world.
What is most interesting about these two thinkers is how similar their work is in effect. Both Einstein and Picasso investigated perception as a function of location. Einstein considered the issue with mathematical equations, while Picasso cut up the world into pieces and rearranged them in his paintings.
Although Einstein and Picasso did not work together, they engaged in an implicit form of collective thinking in that they applied similar approaches to traditionally different fields of study. This kind of collaboration must become commonplace in our world, as research into the nature of our existence cannot rely on a single field of study but must engage all of the pathways we have at our disposal — language, art, math, science and so on. It is our job to participate in all of them.
Recently, there has been a great deal of discussion about the prospect of a quantum computer. Rather than working under a binary system in which the computer can only assign values of 0 and 1, quantum computers have the ability to superimpose multiple states onto one another, allowing for 0 and 1 to be encoded simultaneously as a single value. By debinarizing the operation of computers, the rate at which they can perform tasks increases astonishingly. A problem that would take a classical computer many years to solve could take the quantum computer only a few seconds.
Our society needs to be able think like a quantum computer. It needs to be able to synthesize multiple pieces of information simultaneously. I study chemistry and art not for the purpose of finding some superficial link between them such as art restoration, but rather to open my avenues of exploration of the world in a larger way. I am able to explore my thinking simultaneously in multiple areas of study, each with its own merits, in order to gain a more complete picture of the world. It is for this reason that progress lies in the “and” rather than the “or.”
Sam Sherman is a College sophomore from Marblehead, Mass., studying chemistry and fine arts. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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