From the archives: October 2009

Or, if you'd prefer, return to the most recent posts.

On wanting to be a polymath when I grow up

Monday, 26 October 2009 — 3:43pm

I never did keep up with the book reviews and other oddities I promised, did I? It appears I’ve run into what I’m beginning to term the Cambridge Problem: there’s so much to do, on top of all the interesting things I read (sometimes required, but more often not), that it has left me absolutely no time to sit down and write about any of it.

Only this weekend did I finally catch up with some of the blogs and periodicals I regularly follow. And if there was one article that caught my eye, it was the Edward Carr piece in The Economist‘s sister publication, Intelligent Life, entitled “The last days of the polymath”. The issue at hand is scarcely a stone’s throw from the usual humdrum crisis of breadth versus depth, but Carr eloquently navigates his way through the obstacles to the budding specialist-in-anything: lack of acceptance in expert circles, the danger of merely dabbling, reverential nostalgia for Thomas Young, and so on. It’s a bittersweet picture, yet not a hopeless one.

The accompanying list of twenty living polymaths may turn some heads. Mark Liberman has already remarked on the telling absence of “linguist” under Noam Chomsky’s credentials; similarly, the entry for Michael Ignatieff surely sheds some light on how he is perceived in Britain (“Historian, TV presenter, politician”). I think Douglas Hofstadter is listed with too few “strings” (“Mathematician, aesthetic theorist, author”), and the same is likely true of Oliver Sacks and Alexander McCall Smith, who both get a second string solely for writing for the public. It can’t be that uncommon to be a two-string polymath (and if we include popular writing as a profession in itself, it’s downright frequent), although it may be a real challenge to make significant and independent contributions in two separate fields.

For an alternative game of measurement, I suggest finding low Erdős numbers for non-mathematicians. This doesn’t tend to yield polymaths so much as it yields academic authors outside of mathematics who share publication credit over something with a mathematical element—co-publication and individual specialization are two very different beasts, and may in fact be mutually negatory—but it does highlight where disciplines cross.

One proposed measure is the Erdős-Bacon number, which is equal to an individual’s co-publication distance from Paul Erdős plus his or her screen-credit distance from Kevin Bacon. (Natalie Portman’s is 6.) As a profession-dependent model, it’s little better for identifying polymaths, but I think it has the right idea: we ought to use a composite metric, if only for fun.

Annotations (2)

The theory of anything

Tuesday, 13 October 2009 — 5:43pm | Insights

For the one or two of you wondering where last week’s book review was: no, it’s not the usual truancy. The book I read for last Wednesday was The Two Cultures, the 1959 lecture by C.P. Snow about the drifting specializations of the sciences and the humanities, specifically (but not exclusively) in the context of Cold War Britain.

Coincidentally—or really, by no coincidence at all—the undergraduates in my department are studying the text along with the bilious response by the literary critic F.R. Leavis, and the university is hosting a fiftieth-anniversary public lecture on it tomorrow. So I’ve decided to defer my review, as there’s really no talking about a book like this while burying one’s head in the sands of time and pretending the mountain of scholarly discussion about it didn’t take place. It will not appear tomorrow, though, as this week a book of a rather different sort has demanded urgent attention and jumped the queue, and that book’s author is also scheduled to speak tomorrow.

This is all very exciting.

I bring up Snow, at any rate, because of a personal observation I have made about academic specialization. It is this: people don’t believe me when they ask me what my interests are, and I blithely answer, “Everything.” No, seriously, I am interested in Everything. (Okay, so maybe we can do away with a few of the postpostcolonial identity theorists, but they haven’t much use for taxonomy anyway.)

Now, “What do you specialize in?” is common enough as a social question for studious types to get acquainted, and I don’t have a suitable replacement to propose. That tells us something, though, doesn’t it? It tells us that despite the best binary or ternary efforts to, as they say in this country, mind the gap, Everything is still far from good standing as a favourable subject. Well, in my prelapsarian undergraduate innocence I learned a great deal about Everything (though not nearly as much as I learned about Nothing). I liked it, you know. It came bundled with promises of a fruitful and not-at-all-paradoxical career as a professional dilettante.

I am beginning to realize, though, that I can’t quite call it Everything, because among scientific folks especially, that simply invites confusion with an interest in that holy grail of physics, the Theory of Everything. What an unjust misrepresentation it would be, then, to so haughtily dub myself a specialist in Everything when Nothing could be further from the truth. What should I call it, then? I’m not sure, to be honest. Anything is possible.

(Ah, much better; I’ve gotten the French out of my system.)

Annotations (0)

Stephen Harper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

Monday, 5 October 2009 — 7:16pm | Canadiana, Music

You didn’t seriously expect me to let this pass without comment?

Were this a political blog, I would have little to add to the obvious analysis that every national publication promptly shoved out the door. Nobody knows what to do with this, yet everybody knows what to do with this because there isn’t that much to debate. Say, wasn’t that rather good? Aren’t the lyrics ironic in light of Conservative policy? Didn’t the Prime Minister previously criticize this sort of arts gala as too removed from public concern? Is this a gift-horse for the artsy-fartsy elites or a populist slap in the face? And isn’t Michael Ignatieff ever in trouble when all he has to his name is a tour of duty as a BBC culture personality in the 1980s (which carries a lot of weight with me, as you can probably guess)? Colour me bored. The one refreshing piece of journalism in all this is this human-interest story in The Globe and Mail about how Laureen Harper arranged the gig—and I call it refreshing not least because it’s, you know, The Globe and Mail.

We can ask ourselves if this was an “honest” move or a shrewd grab for political advantage (as if the two were mutually exclusive!) until we are blue in the face. But this is not a political blog, and what Mr Harper’s performance says about politics is a good deal less interesting to me than what it says about music.

Continued »

Annotations (1)

I am the very model of a squandered opportunity

Saturday, 3 October 2009 — 9:46pm | Classical, Literature, Mathematics, Music

Among the many things I passed through upon my arrival in Cambridge was a symposium on Euclidean Geometry in Nineteenth-Century Culture, organized by Alice Jenkins (University of Glasgow) and CRASSH. I may say a few things about it later, but for now, let us limit ourselves to this tidbit.

I briefly spoke to Robin Wilson, the author of Lewis Carroll in Numberland (reviewed here), from whom I learned that Lewis Carroll once corresponded with Arthur Sullivan to propose an operatic adaptation of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Sullivan declined.

Or, as I like to tell it: Sullivan declined, and English comic opera has never recovered since.

Annotations (0)