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.


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2 rejoinders to “On wanting to be a polymath when I grow up”

  1. Bah. I am a polymath — a friend dubbed the mental property cowaniscience, defined as ‘knowing at least something about almost everything’, and I could give lectures on linguistics, history, computer programming, literature, and baby-tending almost without stopping to think. Google is still my best friend on almost any subject (disclaimer: also my employer). But, like you and Tolkien (just to be extreme about it), I have troubles with the follow-through.

    I’m not too happy with the Erdős–Bacon number as an index of anything, though; Daniel Kleitman has the lowest known value (3), and that’s almost all that his Wikipedia entry says about him. (There is a Wikipedia entry for John Cowan, which I started, but it’s not about me.)

    Monday, 26 October 2009 at 6:38pm

  2. The trouble with knowing at least a little about a lot is that it becomes very difficult to know a lot about anything in particular. That’s certainly my problem.

    Everybody loves savants, who can do something superlatively, sometimes at the detriment of others. Nobody likes a Renaissance Man anymore.

    Monday, 26 October 2009 at 9:32pm

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