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Edward Carr on the last days of the polymath

      

"A polymath (Greek πολυμαθής, polymathēs, “having learned much”) is a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas. In less formal terms, a polymath (or polymathic person) may simply be someone who is very knowledgeable. Most ancient scientists were polymaths by today’s standards.

The terms Renaissance man and, less commonly, Homo Universalis (Latin for “universal man” or “man of the world”) are related and used to describe a person who is well educated or who excels in a wide variety of subjects or fields.The idea developed in Renaissance Italy from the notion expressed by one of its most accomplished representatives, Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1472): that “a man can do all things if he will.” It embodied the basic tenets of Renaissance humanism, which considered humans empowered, limitless in their capacities for development, and led to the notion that people should embrace all knowledge and develop their capacities as fully as possible. Thus the gifted people of the Renaissance sought to develop skills in all areas of knowledge, in physical development, in social accomplishments, and in the arts”. (Wiki)

One moment, of the Well of Life to taste—
The Stars are setting, and the Caravan
Starts for the dawn of Nothing—Oh, make haste!

The Persian sage’s carpe diem, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, (translation by Edward FitzGerald)

"When Thomas Young was alive the world contained about a billion people. Few of them were literate and fewer still had the chance to experiment on the nature of light or to examine the Rosetta stone. Today the planet teems with 6.7 billion minds. Never have so many been taught to read and write and think, and then been free to choose what they would do with their lives. The electronic age has broken the shackles of knowledge. Never has it been easier to find something out, or to get someone to explain it to you. 

Yet as human learning has flowered, the man or woman who does great things in many fields has become a rare species. Young was hardly Aristotle, but his capacity to do important work in such a range of fields startled his contemporaries and today seems quite bewildering. The dead cast a large shadow but, even allowing for that, the 21st century has no one to match Michelangelo, who was a poet as well as a sculptor, an architect and a painter. It has no Alexander von Humboldt, who towered over early-19th-century geography and science. And no Leibniz, who invented calculus at the same time as Newton and also wrote on technology, philosophy, biology, politics and just about everything else. 

Although you may be able to think of a few living polymaths who rival the breadth of Young’s knowledge, not one of them begins to rival the breadth of his achievements. Over the past 200 years the nature of intellectual endeavour has changed profoundly. The polymaths of old were one-brain universities. These days you count as a polymath if you excel at one thing and go on to write a decent book about another. (…) 

[Today] so many scientists are publishing research in each specialism that merely to keep up with the reading is a full-time job. “The frontier of knowledge is getting longer,” says Professor Martin Rees, the president of the Royal Society, where Young was a leading light for over three decades. “It is impossible now for anyone to focus on more than one part at a time.”

Specialisation is hard on polymaths. Every moment devoted to one area is a moment less to give over to something else. Researchers are focused on narrower areas of work. In the sciences this means that you often need to put together a team to do anything useful. Most scientific papers have more than one author; papers in some disciplines have 20 or 30. Only a fool sets out to cure cancer, Rees says. You need to concentrate on some detail—while remembering the big question you are ultimately trying to answer. “These days”, he says, “no scientist makes a unique contribution.”

It is not only the explosion of knowledge that puts polymaths at a disadvantage, but also the vast increase in the number of specialists and experts in every field. This is because the learning that creates would-be polymaths creates monomaths too and in overwhelming numbers. If you have a multitude who give their lives to a specialism, their combined knowledge will drown out even a gifted generalist. And while the polymath tries to take possession of a second expertise in some distant discipline, his or her first expertise is being colonised by someone else. (…)

Just knowing about a lot of things has never been easier. Never before have dabblers been so free to paddle along the shore and dip into the first rock pool that catches the eye. If you have an urge to take off your shoes and test the water, countless specialists are ready to hold your hand.

And yet you will never get very deep. Depth is for monomaths—which is why experts so often seem to miss what really matters. Specialisation has made the study of English so sterile that students lose much of the joy in reading great literature for its own sake. A generation of mathematically inclined economists neglected many of Keynes’s insights about the Depression because he put them into words. For decades economists sweated over fiendish mathematical equations, only to be brought down to earth by the credit crunch: Keynes’s well-turned phrases had come back to life. (…)

Polymaths were the product of a particular time, when great learning was a mark of distinction and few people had money and leisure. Their moment has passed, like great houses or the horse-drawn carriage. The world may well be a better place for the specialisation that has come along instead. The pity is that progress has to come at a price. Civilisation has put up fences that people can no longer leap across; a certain type of mind is worth less. The choices modern life imposes are duller, more cramped.

The question is whether their loss has affected the course of human thought. Polymaths possess something that monomaths do not. Time and again, innovations come from a fresh eye or from another discipline. Most scientists devote their careers to solving the everyday problems in their specialism. Everyone knows what they are and it takes ingenuity and perseverance to crack them. But breakthroughs—the sort of idea that opens up whole sets of new problems—often come from other fields. The work in the early 20th century that showed how nerves work and, later, how DNA is structured originally came from a marriage of physics and biology. Today, Einstein’s old employer, the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, is laid out especially so that different disciplines rub shoulders. I suspect that it is a poor substitute.

Isaiah Berlin once divided thinkers into two types. Foxes, he wrote, know many things; whereas hedgehogs know one big thing. The foxes used to roam free across the hills. Today the hedgehogs rule.”  

—  Edward Carr, The last days of the polymath, More Intelligent Life Magazine, The Economist, Autumn 2009, (Picture Credit: MASA/Breed London)