Yesterday afternoon I hopped on my bike and pedaled along the bicycle boulevard (see my post on the boulevard) about a mile to attend the opening ceremony of an impressive new building on the UW-Madison campus, the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery.

This building is positioned to connect many of the campus’s science communities.

The structure has been designed to forge creative connections between UW-Madison’s various science departments to generate new ways of thinking.

Bruce Alberts, editor-in-chief of Science Magazine gave an inspiring keynote address singing the praises of mixing up the traditional disciplines to break out into new areas of knowledge and discovery.  “We don’t need to know what we are going to end up with before we start,” Alberts said.

Alberts bemoaned what he called training inertia, where new scientists follow directly in  the well-grooved paths of their professors.  This creates clumps of researchers all fighting to be the first to make some tiny step forward in a crowded field while entire research areas are left unexplored.  Stepping away from groupthink to explore something really new with no possible immediate benefit is how breakthroughs happen, said Alberts.

He noted a website,  Beyond Discovery which  lists a number of recent breakthroughs that seemed abstract at first but have proven to be very powerful.   One example is the Ozone Depletion Phenomenon which describes how  basic research–motivated by a desire to understand nature–often leads to practical results of immense societal benefit.  Or how research that revealed seafloor spreading and plate tectonics have improved how we understand and react to earthquakes, as well as discovering new forms of life that thrive in the steam vents on the sea floor.

Also, in this building UW Madison is teaming up with the privately-funded Morgridge Institute for Research,  and great things are expected to come from the random collision of people and ideas that will be grouped by themes, rather than departments.  The themes will include:

  • Tissue Engineering
  • Epigenetics
  • Living Environment Laboratory
  • Regenerative Biology
  • Medical Devices

The building is also designed to encourage science outreach with learning labs that will serve K-12 students, college students, visiting scientists and the general public.  The entire first floor of this building is a huge welcome sign.  It is called the Town Center, and as you wonder around this gorgeous interior, you find things like WisconScience Exhibit that will feature UW-Madison researchers, an indoor Mesozoic Garden filled with plants that are descendants of species from the age of dinosaurs, a 3-D Microscopy Niche.

This is going to be a great place to meet, check out the displays and grab a bite, for even the eateries are a recipe for recombination.  It is hoped they will lure researchers together with their inviting fare and foster scientific fusion  over lunch over fries or frijoles.

Aldo’s Café, named for Aldo Leopold, the father of wildlife management.  (The house where he lived is just a few blocks from my place, and I view it as a shrine.)

Steenbock’s on Orchard, named after Harry Steenbock, who discovered how to pump up the vitamin D in foods in the 1920s and banish rickets.

Both these eateries are going to be managed by Food Fight, which will emphasize locally grown foods, and green and sustainable practices and cooking methods, which will be on display though the kitchen’s observation window at Steenbock’s.

This is more than a new building.  It’s a new and powerful concept about how to explore.  It is inspiring to see this kind of effort being funneled into the quest for cutting edge research and also outreach to keep the rest of us connected to the thrill of discovery.  It makes me feel hopeful.

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