March 1, 1993
Do you think that mathematics and the rest of the sciences will tend to become less distinct, becoming more and more involved in similar computational tasks, albeit on different problems?
With the current system of science in America, I don’t see any mechanism to reduce the rigidity of it. I think it’s a hell of a pity, because more good science and more useful science could be done if there was less rigidity. Over the 15 years or so that I’ve been doing science in America, I’ve just seen increasing rigidification in the funding agencies and the universities. Everything has to fit into a mathematics department or a physics department or whatever else. The early hope that computing would cut across these things and develop more interdisciplinary approaches really hasn’t panned out.
There’s a question that I really don’t know the answer to: “Is ‘computational science’ something that there should be departments of?” Or, “Is ‘computation’ really a tool that should get mentioned in the educational process of all these different areas?” That’s sort of a similar question to how calculus should be dealt with, because calculus can either be taught in a mathematics department as the domain of mathematics, or it can be distributed among the engineering and physics departments. That’s worked differently at different places.
I think that in the case of learning about Mathematica, for instance, that question again comes up. Should Mathematica be taught as a course unto itself—perhaps in the computer science department, perhaps in the mathematics department? Or should it be the case that if you are trying to teach about Mathematica, you spend the first two weeks of the class talking about that, and specialize your discussion to the particular physics course or whatever you are going to give. My guess is the way things will evolve (or should evolve), is that there will be one central place where people learn Mathematica, just as there is one central place where people learn calculus, and then they can go out and apply it…
… in terms of the rigidity of present-day science, there are two places where there are issues. One is in the research area, the other is in the educational area. To be honest, I see more chance for change in the educational area than in the research area. The research area is so dependent on the structure of funding and things like this that I don’t see that being something that will change quickly.
In the educational area, I think it is much more plausible that computational science courses will develop that do cut across the very rigid boundaries that exist right now. That seems to be a very encouraging thing.