Reading Outside Your Discipline: How Reading Widely Can Supercharge Your Research
Why should a physicist read about fossils or a literary historian pick up a book on gravitational waves? At the center of our ethos at AC Review of Books is the idea that academic texts can be read and enjoyed widely, including by academics working in completely distinct fields. This stems from the knowledge that as humans our interests are not as limited as our increasingly specialised society can make it appear. We are a curious animal, and that curiosity has fuelled our collective creativity and innovation for around 300,000 years. Even as recently as the last few hundred years, academics were often philosophers as well as scientists (Isaac Newton, Gottfried Leibniz), artists as well as mathematicians (Leonardo da Vinci, Albrecht Dürer), and while much has been gained through specialisation, much has also been lost.
A key drawback of over-specialisation is that it is impossible to innovate from within a narrow trench. If Shakespeare hadn’t engaged with a range of literatures, from the work of his contemporaries to classical texts to traditional folk tales from around the world, and taken in ideas from philosophy, astrology, astronomy, history, the natural world, and so on, would his plays have achieved their universal and enduring appeal? Breadth of reading and breadth of interest allows writers, thinkers, and scientists to make novel connections and see things in new ways.
The breadth of reading I am promoting here goes beyond interdisciplinarity, which can too easily fall into yet another specialisation. It’s about picking up the books that interest you, whatever they are, and allowing what you learn along the way to feed into a unique perspective – with the exciting prospect that these various pieces of knowledge may at certain points click into place with your area of research. It’s about creating the conditions for originality rather than trying to manufacture novelty.
While choosing to read and to learn widely isn’t a quick or even a sure route to success, it is personally rewarding and does have the potential to lead to great things. An interesting international study analysed over half a million scientific research articles and found that:
Fifteen years after publication, highly novel papers are almost 60% more likely to be in the top 1% of highly cited papers.
This innovative work isn’t as immediately successful as more traditional work- it is often published in lower impact journals and struggles to secure funding, but over time, it is much more likely to reach the very top. The work these researchers classed as ‘novel’ was that which brought together citations that hadn’t appeared together before: work that made new connections.
In his book Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, David Epstein provides countless examples of situations where an outside perspective leads to a huge breakthrough in a specialised area. There is Nicolas Appert, a “Parisian foodie” and ” jack of all trades” whose insights into food preparation solved Napoleon’s problem of feeding his troops with the ingenious use of airtight champagne bottles and boiling water (starting the journey towards canned food); Bruce Cragin, a retired engineer, who solved the problem of predicting particle storms, something which had formerly stumped top NASA scientists, by using radio waves picked up by telescopes; and John Davis, a chemist whose background in construction led to the idea of using concrete vibrators to clean up the remnants of an oil spill. As these examples show, having knowledge outside of a specialist area can provide the key ingredient to solving some of its most difficult problems. As Epstein concludes, “[s]ometimes, the home field can be so constrained that a curious outsider is truly the only one who can see the solution.”
Reading outside your discipline won’t necessarily lead to groundbreaking success but it certainly increases the odds of producing more creative, interesting, and unique research. The more connections you can make between and across areas of research, the more methods and processes you become familiar with, the more theories catch your attention, the more likely it is that you will have something interesting to contribute your own specialism – or to a specialism to which you are an outsider. More than that, though, reading widely, and allowing your interests to develop along their natural path, provides a lifetime of enjoyment, enrichment, and pleasure.