Newton, Galileo, Leonardo Da Vinci, Thomas Edison, Marie Curie, Pythagoras, Aristotle, Archimedes, Hypatia, Benjamin Franklin, Copernicus to name a few all have something in common. Well — aside from being dead.
They were all polymaths. That is ‘a person of wide knowledge or learning’ (Oxford English Dictionary). It isn’t just about knowing. It is a deep proficiency in many areas. An expert if you will. Da Vinci was a scientist, astronomer, artist, inventor. Hypatia was a mathematician, astronomer, philosopher. Franklin was a politician, author and inventor. I think you get the picture. Although there is subjectivity in defining what an expert in a particular field is, we would all recognise that these individuals were striving to learn and were known for brilliancy across many spheres.
If I could be something when I grow up, I want to be a polymath.
I’ve been trying to understand why polymaths fascinate me. Clearly the names I have presented are the pinnacle of such an accomplishment. But it’s the proposition of trying to be able; talented; successful in diverse areas if you put you mind to it that absorbs me. The elasticity of our brains and bodies; that will to forge ahead in multiple directions, the creativity and openness it fosters in an individual. As the world has modernised many of us have the luxury of time, resources, attitude, to be free to stretch ourselves across manifold endeavours more than ever. Yet, unexpectedly fewer clasp opportunities to learn outside of our core role in life even though the essence of what it is to be a polymath can be lived in a small way if you so choose. On a very marginal scale, it is how I try to live life and so when I come across those who also do, I find it thrilling and admirable.
Peter Burke has written a book called The Polymath. In it he discusses the characteristics of such people: their ability to concentrate, deep curiosity, well developed memory, imagination, inability to sit still, frustration at wasting time. An Open Culture post revealed the translated pages from Da Vinci’s notebook featuring his to do lists (c1490). This perfectly reflects these polymath characteristics….and also distinguishes my to do lists as a little limp
- Get the master of arithmetic to show you how to square a triangle
- Get Messer Fazio (a professor of medicine and law in Pavia) to show you about proportion
- Get the Brera Friar (at the Benedictine Monastery to Milan) to show you De Ponderibus (a medieval text on mechanics)
- Draw Milan
- [Examine] the Crossbow of Mastro Giannetto
- Find a master of hydraulics and get him to tell you how to repair a lock, canal and mill in the Lombard manner
- [Ask about] the measurement of the sun promised me by Maestro Giovanni Francese
- Try to get Vitolone (the medieval author of a text on optics), which is in the Library at Pavia, which deals with the mathematic
Robert Root Bernstein a US professor believes that the mental approaches in being creative are the same whether you are painting or solving a scientific theorem. He does not find it surprising that those individuals passionate about one realm, delve into contrasting domains of creativity. This is a quite a thought provoking idea. I had always assumed people spent time studying a variety of subjects because of the interest in the individual subject. Whereas the motive could be that but it could also be to cultivate the ‘ability to combine disparate (or even apparently contradictory) ideas, sets of problems, skills, talents and knowledge in novel and useful ways. [Because] Polymathy is the main source of any individual’s creative potential’. That is by diversifying your learning you become more constructive in your core subject.
“Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses — especially learn how to see. Realise that everything connects to everything else.” — Leonardo Da Vinci
Research into polymathy offers a correlation between number of interests and impact. Brian Uzzi is a professor at the Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management. He analysed more than 26 million scientific papers spanning many generations and found that the papers with the greatest impact (by that I believe he meant taken forward) were developed by teams composed of individuals with an unusual mix of skills and experiences.
But as I contemplate polymathy, it also raised many questions. How do we become one? Where is the boundary between someone who carries out many activities averagely and another who is skilled in many areas (and hence a polymath)? Are you born great or can you learn to be talented? Is there a genetic component to becoming a polymath or is it environmental? Our society is mostly based on specialising, how do you survive if you are multi-disciplinary? The truth is — I don’t think we know the answers to these questions although Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers : The story of success, prophesied that with 10,000 hours of concerted practice you could become an expert in any field.
As you can tell, I am enthralled by the ideas of polymathy and what it intrinsically signifies about a person. I accept that for some It is not a realistic path and that it also isn’t a healthy basis on which to judge those I meet. But fundamentally it seems to be a direction of travel we should strive towards in our own small ways if it can make us more impactful in our core interest. If it evolves our creativity, ability to think laterally and generates a passion for self-improvement and life, that seems to me quite a venerable way to live.