STEM Is A State Of Mind

Timothy Hunt earned a Ph. D. in English from Northern Illinois University in 1971.  For many years he taught humanities, non-profit management and communication at colleges and universities in Arizona and Idaho.  He is now retired and lives in Hayden with his wife and their three cats.

I very much liked what Angela Hemingway wrote recently, that the working definition of STEM in Idaho is an integration of two (or more) STEM fields and is broad, encompassing not only the traditional STEM fields, but also health care and social sciences. She hit on a very important point—most productive thinking is done by people who think in interdisciplinary terms.

About thirty years ago, I met an inventor in Sandpoint named Jim Healy.  He had founded a company called Lead-Lok which I visited.  Their main product was a really neat looking apparatus (a locking lead) that enabled patients to be attached to electrical monitoring machines without the traditional discomfort associated with the removal of the leads.  I remember an EKG when I was seventeen; the worst part was tearing off those leads. Goodness, it hurt. Jim’s invention had clips that could be opened again and removed painlessly.

He reminded me of Gyro Gearloose, the anthropomorphic chicken and famous inventor who lived in Duckburg, Donald Duck’s home town.  That is, Jim had a rare ability to leave this universe for another presumably parallel one where he could do some uninterrupted thinking and then return with his newly found knowledge.  In the instance I recall, we were standing in his garage looking at some water skis he had invented when it occurred to me that my neighbor back home in Flagstaff had a problem that needed fixing.  He had dropped and broken one of his two garage door openers; back in those days that meant you needed a new motor which was expensive. I asked Jim and he left me briefly for that other universe. Fortunately he returned, and with the answer. The difficulty was simply to ascertain the radio frequency of the opener and the motor.  A tool used in television repair, he told me, could identify frequencies.  Replacement was easy once that information had been obtained.  I returned to Flagstaff with that solution, my neighbor went to a television repair shop, and presto, a new opener was born for no cost whatever since the repairman got a kick out of being asked and rebuilding the old apparatus.  I have often wondered whether or not the television repairman advertised his newly found skill.  Today we have different ways of setting frequencies.  Now Jim Healy had no background in electronics.  His inventions were from an entirely different realm of STEM; but he was willing to think in interdisciplinary terms, at least long enough to solve a problem.

For many years I taught interdisciplinary studies, the humanities.  I recall that I came to understand Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” only after I came to understand the nature of the medieval cathedral.  I also remember hearing about a linguist who was working on the development of languages in Scandinavian countries.  He met an ichthyologist at a cocktail party and the two began discussing the research problem in linguistics. It happens the fish doc had been working with the migration of herring in the same geographical region and knew that the fish moved in regular patterns. By backing up the movement of the herring through the centuries, the linguist was able to figure out how fishermen moved to follow their prey and after that the language patterns virtually worked themselves out.  Yes, I am a firm believer in interdisciplinary thinking.  I am delighted that Angela has introduced her readers to the notion in STEM fields.