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ON POLYMATHS

MERRIMAN-WEBSTER DEFINES polymath as “a person of encyclopedic learning.” This is a direct translation of its Greek origin, πολυμαθής, polymathis. 

I’d add “and of encyclopedic doing,” for how else would we know of these gifted individuals?

 The August 28, 2020, issue of AAAS Science magazine has Andrew Robinson’s “A History of Insatiable Intellectuals,” a review of  Peter Burke’s The Polymath: A Cultural History from Leonardo da Vinci to Susan Sontag. Here are tidbits gleaned from the review, together with my usual Internet sleuthing. 

The Polymath: A Cultural History from Leonardo da Vinci to Susan Sontag, by Peter Burke, Yale University Press, 2020.

Robinson quotes author Peter Burke, “The development of science from the mid-19th century abounds in specialists…” “Yet,” Robinson writes, “despite the trend toward specialization since that time, polymaths… have remained vital to science, if fewer in number.” 

A Goodly Total. Burke cites those from other cultures, but limits his focus to 500 western polymaths. Many of them are familiar, da Vinci, Copernicus, Christopher Wren, Richard Feynmann, and Susan Sontag.

Others are less well known, such as Englishman Thomas Young. Robinson writes that Young is “now regarded by many as the greatest polymath since da Vinci.” 

Polymath Young. Robinson says, “Formally trained as a physician in the 1790s, Young taught himself physics and philology. He discovered the phenomenon of astigmatism and first proposed the three-color theory of how the retina responds to light.”

Thomas Young, 1773–1829, British polymath. Portrait by Henry Perronet Briggs.

Robinson continues, “He showed, in his famous double-slit experiment, that light could behave as both a particle and a wave, a remarkable observation that Richard Feynman declared ‘the heart of quantum mechanics’ and its ‘only mystery.’ Young also named the Indo-European family of languages and took the first crucial steps in deciphering the Rosetta stone and the Egyptian hieroglyphs.”

The Thomas Young Centre is an alliance of London research groups working on the theory and simulation of materials.

Polymath Habits. Burke analyzes personal characteristics of polymaths. Cited are unusual powers of concentration, capacious memory, imagination, restlessness, industriousness, and an obsession with not wasting time. 

Burke writes, [An] “overdose of curiosity, long known as the libido sciendi [lust for knowledge] and described by the polymath Francis Bacon as ‘inquisitive appetite,’ is surely the most general as well as the most obvious of the species.”

Sir Francis Bacon, 1st Viscount St. Alban, 1561–1626, English philosopher, natural philosopher (i.e., scientist), and statesman, Lord High Chancellor of England, 1617–1621, to King James I.

A Thoughtful List. Burke writes, “This list of western polymaths active from the early fifteenth century onwards is not intended to form a canon: I am sure that I have missed some important figures, especially when they come from countries whose languages I cannot read…. Living polymaths [as of January 2019] are absent from this list, though some have been mentioned from time to time in the text.” 

No. 1 in Burke’s 500, arranged chronologically, is Filippo Brunelleschi, 1377–1466, Italian architect, engineer, mathematician, inventor, and artist. No. 500 is Stephen J. Gould, 1941–2002, American geologist, palæontologist, biologist. 

Maybe your favorite polymath is among them. Mine is. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2020   

One comment on “ON POLYMATHS

  1. Glyn Hnutu-healh
    September 20, 2020

    I am a Polymath. It is both a blessing and a curse. 😶

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