100 ‘global minds’ who have crossed subject frontiers

An Italian dean has created an A to Z of interdisciplinarity

September 30, 2015
Noam Chomsky portrait
Source: David Johnson

A new book celebrates 100 of the academics, artists and activists who have been boldest in crossing disciplinary boundaries.

The project is the brainchild of Gianluigi Ricuperati, creative director of the Domus Academy in Milan, a private postgraduate school of design that describes itself as “a living laboratory, an incubator of talents and a springboard for interdisciplinary adventures”.

In today’s world, he told Times Higher Education, “the most exciting ideas come in the liminal and interstitial spaces between disciplines. The digital revolution forces us all to think in terms of numbers, pictures and words. That is why the world, including the academic world, has become less rigid.”

To compile the list that forms the basis for 100 Global Minds: The Most Daring Cross-disciplinary Thinkers in the World, Mr Ricuperati asked a number of young people with a deep interest in arts and culture to offer their suggestions. All were under 25, he explained, so that they had “less links to the professional world and could offer a pure choice based on observation and free judgement”.

Mr Ricuperati added some ideas of his own but also enlisted the help of Francesco Vaccarino, a mathematician teaching at the Polytechnic University of Turin, as the book explains, to “design an algorithm that was able to detect the number of times that a name is mentioned on the internet in an environment different from their own”. This enabled them to assess each of their thinkers in relation to 10 separate subject areas – arts and humanities, architecture, business, education, engineering, law, life sciences, medicine, physics, mathematics and social sciences – and “calculate the probability distribution of finding a link associating their name with each of the disciplines”.

Since this last method inevitably favoured famous names, Mr Ricuperati ensured that the final selection also included some up-and-coming figures and offered a reasonable balance in terms of gender, background, language and discipline. He selected a quotation from each of his “masters of the contemporary condition”, coordinated a team of writers to produce brief descriptions and commissioned striking portraits from illustrator David Johnson.

So who made the final cut? Mr Ricuperati noted that “most teach in one way or another” but that there were “relatively few academics” (see below) – although there are a fair number of scientists and Noam Chomsky, for example, had to be included as “a ground-breaking scientist and political commentator and public intellectual”.

While they hoped to avoid stars, it proved impossible to exclude David Byrne of Talking Heads or musician and record producer Brian Eno because “the algorithm went mad for them and they are cross-disciplinary heroes”.

Others who made the grade were Nigerian novelist and feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, human rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali and singer Laurie Anderson; film directors Paul Thomas Anderson and Wes Anderson; critic and novelist John Berger, computer scientist Sir Tim Berners-Lee, literary agent and science publicist John Brockman; and so on through the rest of the alphabet.

Taken together, as Mr Ricuperati puts it in the book, he hopes that they represent “the most adventurous intellectuals, both today’s and tomorrow’s” who are “trying, with visionary pragmatism, to move between one discipline and another without ever losing the reins of their language of origin”.

Gianluigi Ricuperati’s 100 Global Minds: The Most Daring Cross-disciplinary Thinkers in the World will shortly be published by Roads Publishing in Dublin.


Academic ’global minds’

Although they rub shoulders with curators, designers, journalists and poets, academics – from Italian philosopher and political theorist Giorgio Agamben to Slovenian cultural critic and provocateur Slavoj Žižek – do feature in 100 Global Minds. Some are as well known as Camille Paglia and Thomas Piketty. Others are lesser-known astronomers, climatologists and sleep scientists.

Albert Bandura, the most cited living psychologist, we read, pioneered a theory that “considers behaviour as a starting point to abstract the mental processes that lie behind it”. Swiss economist Hans Christoph Binswanger is a prominent critic of “the growth imperative” – or striving for “endless economic growth” – “particularly in a time of environmental crises”.

Meanwhile, novelist and philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein believes passionately that “philosophical thinking that doesn’t do violence to one’s settled mind is no philosophical thinking at all”.

Another, cognitive psychologist, Alison Gopnik, has built a lifetime’s research on the striking fact that “children are both profound and puzzling, and this combination is the classic territory of philosophy. Yet you could read 2,500 years of philosophy and find nothing about children.”

And Eyal Weizman has developed a whole new field of “forensic architecture” he describes as “the archaeology of the very recent past” and has powerfully applied it to the traces left on the ground by the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Matthew Reisz

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