As a first introduction to this section it may be useful to define and explain what is meant by cross-pollination and how it is useful. Essentially, this refers to interdisciplinary science – that is: science that either fits into no traditional discipline or field, or where some kind of exchange takes place.
As someone who has a history of working in such environments for many years I often take it for granted and as something that is just out there and is self-explanatory. Yet I often come across people who tell me they have no idea what this means or seem to have mixed up views.
There is actually a lot of overlap between fields and disciplines as it is to the point that people often say things like: “Chemistry is a part of physics, except for the part that is more like cooking”, or “Engineering is just applied physics”, “Mathematics is just a logical language and informatics is an application of that language”, “Physics is applied philosophy”, “Biology is chemistry”. You and I might find fallacies with some of these statements, or disagree with them for whatever reason, but that that is not the point. The point is that indeed there is overlap between fields but they are different fields for various historical reasons and it is true that often people basically work on the same stuff under different disciplines.
There is however a fundamental difference in how they think about the problems and how they work which comes from the field they are in – often a totally different way of thinking. In some cases the differences can be so large that coming from one field to another one might get a cultural shock. There is sometimes a universal way people in a field behave that seems to be true across institutions and countries within that field – To give an example, in physics it is common to call everyone by the first name, even if he is an old professor with a Nobel Prize, whereas in mathematics everyone expects you to call them by surname with Dr. / Prof. in front. I use this anecdote to demonstrate the differences in thinking. Physicists sometimes say that physics is the study of everything, but they do not study everything.
I recall a joke: Farmer has chicken that contracted a strange sickness and is helpless so a biologists comes and after some diagnosis tells the farmer we haven’t seen this sickness before so the chicken are probably just tired and need some vitamins. Then he calls the chemist, the chemist makes some tests and analysis the samples and finds it is some kind of poisoning but does not have an antidote. Then the farmer calls a physicist, the physicist runs off to a parallel computing facility and a few days later comes back with a solution! But it only works for spherical chicken in the vacuum.
Biology is very phenomenological and is based on statistics. Physics is all about making approximations (often for practical purposes they are enough). Anyone who has ever worked on some computational modeling knows very well what that is all about. Actually nowadays with powerful computational power it is possible to make extremely precise approximations.
So then the rationale for interdisciplinary collaboration is not just to solve complex problems that do not fit in traditional disciplines, but more importantly to get fresh insights on existing problems. There already exist some very interesting new interdisciplinary fields – for example bioinformatics or biophysics. I would like to give a few examples from recent years in these fields to show what was achieved thanks to interdisciplinary collaboration.
Biophysics in particular is an interesting field with a lot of potential. One very famous example was related to bacterial motors. The idea behind biophysics was precisely that biologists and physicists work and think so differently yet there are many instances in biology that benefit from a physics approach. Bacterial motor is not a science fiction but it is a technical term describing the way microorganisms move with part of their cell designed for this purpose and understanding how they do it. This is exactly where the need for interdisciplinary work comes from: microorganisms cannot move in the same way a fish or a swimming person does because of they’re sizes. When you swim in water you can “whack” the water but a microorganism needs to propel itself in a different way. This is because water has different viscosity properties on these different scales. So instead a bacterium swims by rotating a filament, which is driven by a molecular motor. Understanding these is very important if we want to build nano machines in the future, for example.
Another important field is biomimetics – this is about adapting what is in nature and what is done well in nature into technology. This is not a new field; Velcro was inspired by the way hooked weeds attach to clothing and water-repellent materials were inspired by studying the surface of lotus leaves, to give a few famous examples. This field is very interdisciplinary in nature and I estimate this will be one of the most important fields in the future technology - especially related to artificial intelligence, nano machines, self assembly and others. Indeed, many of these ideas and technologies were taken by observing nature.
We can imagine autonomous flying machines based on jelly-fish style propellant [https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/full/10.1098/rsif.2013.0992], nano-machine inspired by insect like swarm intelligence (actually parallel computing is already a bit in this direction). There are already projects related to artificial trees (mimicking energy free transport of liquids and cleaning of water and air that is autonomous and self sufficient) and low energy air conditioning system based on mimicking termite housing system (this already exists in Zimbabwe).