October 17, 2009

Which 20th century thinker would have been a 17th century polymath?

The farther back you go in time for about 350 years, the easier it was to have been a polymath. In the 18th Century, Franklin, Kant, and Goethe could make sizable scientific contributions in their spare time. In the 17th Century, polymathic geniuses were thick on the ground, such as Descartes, Leibniz, and Pascal.

What 20th Century figure would have cut the widest swathe in the late 17th Century? Off hand, I'd guess John von Neumann, the mathematician-physicist who played such a large role in the Cold War despite dying at only 53 in 1957. Considering he made a deathbed conversion to Catholicism, I could imagine him converting earlier in the old Austrian empire and rising to be Prime Minister as well as a towering figure of Newtownian proportions in the sciences.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

134 comments:

Usually Lurking said...

Here is a short list of candidates:
Howard Hughes
Ludwig Wittgenstein
Richard Feynman
Buckminster Fuller
Isaac Asimov
Thomas Edison

Henry Canaday said...

J.B.S. Haldane seems to qualify as an actual 20th Century polymath, according to reasonable criteria. At least he gave the old school try. Haldane “…made contributions, many of high value, to biology, physiology, preventive medicine, botany, hematology; statistical theory, prevention of air-raid casualties and the effects of various gasses and other chemical and physical agents on the human body – frequently his own. He subjected himself to high pressures, intense cold, poisoning, disease inoculations, fevers, temporary paralysis and other unpleasantness…(and) made a number of brilliant suggestions in connection with…the theory of kinematic relativity, a supplement to Einstein’s great theory.”*

Haldane is not well known to the general public because he did not participate prominently in political life. I think to make the public polymath grade you need, in addition to brilliance and hard work, two other conditions: gregariousness and a sufficiently small society that men of extraordinary ability will find themselves participating very visibly in important public matters. Neumann had, like Franklin, the gregariousness. Franklin also had the second, living in English colonies with a total white population of 3 million, of whom perhaps 10,000 had the ability and leisure to pursue their own interests freely and productively.

England in the first five decades of the 20th Century came close to the fulfilling this second condition, in a way. It was a world power connected with almost all the important events, intellectual, scientific, economic, military and cultural, across the globe, yet a country in which opportunity for several vocations and avocations was open to a restricted population of public school or university graduates, generally the gifted sons of the gentry. You can learn a lot about many important events of the period by reading in detail the lives of just two men, Winston Churchill and John Maynard Keynes, since they touched, or were touched by, so many of these events, and not only in war and economics.

*Newman, “The World of Mathematics”

Anonymous said...

Steve, please:

1. hyphenate "20th century" when using it as a compound adjective, and

2. never capitalize century unless it's the 1st word in a sentence

Dupinac said...

Joseph Schumpeter. http://www.kirkcenter.org/index.php/bookman/article/a-formidable-conservative-mind/

Anonymous said...

feynman

Anonymous said...

Wernher von Braun was the most impressive figure of the 20th century.

bBass said...

R.A. Fisher, pretty much a polymath already.

Jorn said...

The ENIAC design was mostly done before JvN was brought in, but he shamelessly hogged the credit on the first published document. His work on quantum mechanics was trivial, and his economic models were wrong.

Joshua Lawrence Cahmberlain said...

Possibly Freeman Dyson. He started out as a number theorist. He came very close to winning a Fields Medal. Switched to physics. Showed the equivalnece of the Feynman,Schwinger and the other third framework-I can't think of the Japanese physcists name at the moment(Tomanaga?) Went on to do very important work in astrophysics. Did some nuclear weapons research. Did interstng work in the Engieeering field. And there are probably other things I am not aware of.

And then there is Feynman. Helped Create Quantum Elctrodynamics. Weapons designer(the first H-bomb). Figured out superfluidity(condensed matter physics). Laid the theoretical foundations for nanotechnology. Laid down the theoretical foundatins for Quantum Computing.Worked in gentics briefly. Also worked briefly on designing parallel processing computers with Danny Hillis.

Possibly Irish Physcist John Bell. Possibly Univesity of Bristol physcist Michael Berry. Made very important contributions to different fields of physics,and very important contributions to mathematics(deep insights into te Riemann Hypothesis)

Anonymous said...

He must not have been that smart if he converted to Catholicism. I can't stand people who convert at a later age because they didn't have their young lives ruined by it.

Anonymous said...

Because so much of the low hanging fruit has been picked, it is much harder to be a modern polymath -- at least if by polymath some one who has made original contributions in many subjects.

Due to the Flynn Effect and greater access to education, the situation is much more competitive today, as it is in organized sports, for example.

There are many, many people alive today who are not at all famous who would have been exceptional polymaths in the past.

BTW, I agree with commenters on the earlier thread: Franklin is not nearly as impressive as many other historical figures.

jody said...

tom scholz. he is most famous as the primary force behind the rock band, boston, which released what is about the number 10 best selling album of all time.

but scholz also had a bachelor's and master's degree in mechanical engineering from MIT. after graduating from MIT, he worked at polaroid, where he invented the one-stop camera, which polaroid patented.

during his free time away from polaroid, scholz invented the rockman guitar amplifier, which he patented himself, and which permanently changed the sound of hard rock music. it was the main device behind the boston sound, and was immediately adopted by several major guitar players. van halen, journey, rush, zz top, def leppard, megadeth, and pantera all played through a rockman. it has a highly identifiable sound, which did not exist before scholz invented it.

in total, he holds about 30 patents.

scholz, who is 6-5, was also probably good enough at basketball to have been an NBA bench player in the 1970s. before he became an engineering genius at MIT, he was most well known as a high school basketball prospect.

ironrailsironweights said...

Would the Austrian Empire have allowed a Jewish convert to rise to high political office?

Peter

Anonymous said...

I would not place the lowly Franklin with super-geniuses like Leibniz and Descartes.

That's like comparing Plato to Obama.

John Cunningham said...

Definitely vonNeumann would be a choice. another obvious one must be Richard Feynman. aside from his genius in physics, he had a very practical bent while at Los Alamos and when he was on the Shuttle inquiry committee.

Lilith said...

Richard P. Feynman of course. He was the closes we had to a polymath in the 20th century. He study the Maya language, and could play the drums in several different sytles among other talents. Maybe George Mamow as a distance second, for his interest and work on genetics and phyiscs. Sailer, your post should have had the title "Which 20th century thinker besides Feynman would have been a 17th century polymath.

Bibliography

http://www.feynmanonline.com/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Feynman

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Gamow

My racist insult for the day at Truth:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_African-American_inventors_and_scientists,

http://www.math.buffalo.edu/mad/00.INDEXmad.html

I thought you may need some help finding a potential black polymath, since Colonel Sanders is not black. Please use the links above, I bet you will find one. Love you Truth.

Dennis Mangan said...

I'll nominate Claude Shannon, the inventor of information theory. The book "Fortune's Formula" by William Poundstone tells some of his story. He allegedly achieved a 28% annual return in investing over a period of 35 years. From Wiki, "Outside of his academic pursuits, Shannon was interested in juggling, unicycling, and chess. He also invented many devices, including rocket-powered flying discs, a motorized pogo stick, and a flame-throwing trumpet for a science exhibition. One of his more humorous devices was a box kept on his desk called the "Ultimate Machine", based on an idea by Marvin Minsky. Otherwise featureless, the box possessed a single switch on its side. When the switch was flipped, the lid of the box opened and a mechanical hand reached out, flipped off the switch, then retracted back inside the box. In addition he built a device that could solve the Rubik's cube puzzle.[4]

He is also considered the co-inventor of the first wearable computer along with Edward O. Thorp.[15] The device was used to improve the odds when playing roulette."

(Thorp was the inventor of card-counting in blackjack and the author of "Beat the Dealer".)

Anonymous said...

Murray Gell-Mann?

l said...

Henry Ford was a bona fide polymath -- engineering genius, entrepreneur, thinker. Folks nowadays are a bit squeamish about his politics, tho.

Jorn said...

I'd go with Einstein before JvN. Some recent candidates here

John said...

Gives me an opportunity to air my favorite JvN quote:

"In mathematics we never really understand things, we just get used to them."

--JD

Anonymous said...

Bertrand Russell

Anonymous said...

You mean besides Obama, of course...

josh said...

Ryan Seacrest? I mean,he DOES do a lot of stuff...

kudzu bob said...

>What 20th Century figure would have cut the widest swathe in the late 17th Century?<

Probably someone who drowned in the mud at Paschendale, or who went up the chimney at Auschwitz, or who froze at Kolyma, or who succumbed to scurvy during the Great Leap Forward. Or maybe just somebody who never got born because of the Pill.

Mike said...

He may not turn out to be the best choice, but I think the obvious choice is Feynman.

anony-mouse said...

Major 20th Century polymaths and would be polymaths are a pretty sad lot.

John Von Nuemann, Noam Chomsky, Henry Wallace, Bertrand Russell, Carl Sagan, William Shockley, Steven Chu, Robert McNamara, Steve Sailer...

Anonymous said...

Bertrand Russell, as a mathematician, philosopher, and man of letters.

Russell's main weakness as a writer was the shallowness of his thought, but that would have been less of an issue by 17th Century standards.

Lover of Wisdom said...

Godel?

Anonymous said...

Al Gore.

Just kidding. However, I'd nominate two other "Al's," Albert Einstein and Alan Turing.

Luke Lea said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Flueur said...

James Bowery

Tamara said...

Interesting, Steve--nary a black-man in the running.

You don't think black folks produce deep thinkers?

Anonymous said...

von Neumann is a great pick. I'd like to nominate Dick Feynmann, Linus Pauling, and Bertrand Russell (even though he was born in the 1870s).

Anonymous said...

Chomsky.


Created a new scientific field that stemmed from the intuitions of enlightenment philosophy, contemporary mathematical tools and his own imagination.

The depth and creativity of his work is stunning and he is equally gifted in philosophical argument and quantitative analysis. This is a rare gift.



As Paul Bloom says, people will look back a thousand years from now and know his name.


The combination of abstract thinking that allows him to be mathematically fluent and philosophically intimdidating, combined with his originality, leads me to believe he could conquer almost any field. As it is, after Chomsky, there will never again be an argument that one person is perhaps the leading scientist and philosopher of his age.

Anonymous said...

Can we have Bertrand Russell (born 1872)?

Anonymous said...

Richard Feynmann -- math, physics, music, the anatomy of (or, at least, the map of )cats ...

Lewis Thomas?

Steve Allen would have had us believe so.

Anonymous said...

Two more nominees, both Serbs--Nikola Tesla and Milutin Milankovitch.

P Coderch said...

I think the greatest example would be Alan Turing, arguably the most intelligent mathematician of the 20th century. Turing's work is considered the theoretical framework of computer science, and his work, although exclusively in pure mathematics, affected and advanced practically all intellectual fields, such as economics, electronic engineering, metereology, etc. He could write in ancient Eolic Greek, Latin, Russian and Mandarin at the age of 6. Another one I cna think of Christopher Michael Langan, dubbed the man with the World's highest IQ, who is trying to integrate physics, mathematics and philosophy into a grand theory of reality. According to Langan, reality works a lot like a mind. If he is successful, he might become the first true polymath of the twentieth century. It's hard to be a polymath these days because science is so complex and has branched out into so many different fields, but if there is one man who can understand and integrate it all, it is Langan.

Mansizedtarget.com said...

My college professor Leon Kass might have been. He was a philosophy, literature, and political science professor, but he had a medical degree, and seemed to know quite a bit about everything. He even wrote an arm-chair anthropological book on eating rituals.

Anonymous said...

You.

Now stop fishing for compliments, okay?

greenrivervalleyman said...

My pick would be Claude Shannon, the father of information theory and almost certainly the greatest unsung genius of the 20th Century. His mathematically rigorous conception of information has sparked a revolution in human thinking, and profoundly affected such diverse disciplines as electrical engineering & computer science, physics, economics, and biology.

RobertHume said...

Linus Pauling got two Nobel Prizes: for the nature of the chemical bond. Also for his work which helped stop atmospheric nuclear testing.

He was a good mathematician, contributing strongly to the development of x-ray crystallography. That requires both great physical insight together with math. And the physical insight required creative understanding of quantum mechanics.

He was responsible for the structures of many minerals and the first protein structural elements. That's why Watson and Crick figured that he might get the DNA structure before them.

If Pauling had had access to Franklin's x-ray images, he probably would have.

As far as I know he was not a great writer; but he was a great showman and persuader.

Bruce Banned said...

Ernst Jünger. Writer, military, entomologist, philosopher.

Julian said...

I think von Neumann was already nominally a Catholic. Perhaps he just reaffirmed this on his deathbed.

Von Neumann was a little narrow to be called a true polymath. Being exceedingly bright does not make one a polymath.

There are some interesting cases of 20th Century men who did quite good work in, say, both the arts and the sciences. For example, Geoffrey Keynes, Maynard's brother, was a noted Blake scholar and a research haematologist. Jonathan Miller is a comedian, producer, art critic and neurologist. There are people like that.

Check out the list of polymaths on Wikipedia. Some interesting suggestions:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_polymaths

In modern terms, a man of this kind is probably a good model for a polymath:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marius_Kloppers

Technologist, strategist, top businessman.

If Robert Oppenheimer hadn't screwed up as a political force, I'd have been tempted to name him as a polymath: theoretical and applied physicist, cultured in arts and languages, debonair, a fine scientific administrator ...

Anonymous said...

"Chomsky...

As it is, after Chomsky, there will never again be an argument that one person is perhaps the leading scientist and philosopher of his age."

That was all supposed to be a joke, right?

eh said...

Enrico Fermi:

...Fermi was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1938 for his work on induced radioactivity and is today regarded as one of the top scientists of the 20th century. He is acknowledged as a unique physicist who was highly accomplished in both theory and experiment.

A polymath? I don't know. But I've always thought he was greatly underrated. Reading histories and biographies of that time, you come across many anecdotes that illustrate his brilliance.

In general I think of the period from 1905, when Einstein used quantum ideas to explain the 'photoelectric effect', until 1945, when the atom bomb was exploded, as a sort of 'Golden Age' of atomic physics, and for that reason perhaps the most interesting time in history for wide-ranging discoveries in basic science.

Baloo said...

Calvin Coolidge, Greg Cochran, Charles Lindbergh....

Anonymous said...

Tamara, let's here the list?

This should be good...

Dunning said...

Greg Cochran?

I like him like most readers here, but does being a physicist who likes to read history and writes some not that original stuff on evolution (Jews have evolved smarts, woocoodanode!?) make one a polymath? shouldn't it be more spectacular and impressive?

Stan said...

The late great Kenneth Pinyan was quite the polymath. He was an engineer at Boeing and an experimental zoologist.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Jorn on this one.

John von Neumann is overrated. He took the credit on ENIAC and the econ work in his book with Morgenstern is just flat out wrong.

Anonymous said...

Why! Barack Obama, who else?

Anonymous said...

Why, Jerry Pournelle of course. ;)

Anonymous said...

if someone doesn't nominate a woman and/or a NAM soon, this blog will be shut down.

-Office of Homeland Diversity

Andrea said...

Stanley Kubrick. That guy understood everything. He was a genuine thinker too.
Sergei Eisenstein. Though best remembered as a Soviet filmmaker, he was also a brilliant engineer and developed many ideas on cinema, arts, politics, and the psychology of watching/enjoying films.
I hear Larry Summers is a supersmart dude with vast knowledge of various disciplines.

--------

It's easier than ever to multi-task but harder than ever to master any single field. But, perhaps with the help of artificial intelligence in the future, man will again be able to master and synthesize various disciplines. He can leave the arduous grunt work of calculation to the computer while he himself sits back and looks for general patterns and interconnection among the various fields. Internet is already a proto-polymathic system that allows instant communication, cross-reference, and coordination among various specializations. And thanks to hightech coordination, it's easier for FBI, CIA, and local law enforcement organizations to share and connect the data.
Polymaths of the past dealt with what we today consider general knowledge. Once knowledge became highly specialized, it required scientists to concentrate a single field of inquiry. He had to deal with mountains of data, mostly in paper form and microfiche, and the task of matching his findings with research and discoveries in other fields was time consuming and clumsy.
Today, ideas and findings can be matched together across the globe at breakneck speed.
Just consider... before the internet, you might have to look through all sorts of local yellow pages, call up all sorts of businesses, pore through endless pages of newspaper ads, etc to find a certain antique item or old record album. Now, you can look, find, and buy such an item almost instantly on the internet. There were certain songs and images I thought I'd never see again but I find them on the net.

There was once a book of Aesop's tale with a certain illustration. I lost the book, didn't know which company published it, and I thought I'd never see the wondrous image in it again... BUT, I found it online. Check this out.

http://www.gutenberg.org/files/11339/11339-h/11339-h.htm#THE_SHIPWRECKED_MAN_AND_THE_SEA

http://www.gutenberg.org/files/11339/11339-h/images/06ship.jpg

Awethom.

With the rise of A.I. our powers to organize and understand data and ideas will increase 100x. Neo-polymathism could arise in the future with the aid of ultra-computing.

agnostic said...

Mr. Feynman? Surely you're joking.

He's the prototypical 20th C. nerd or geek, whose non-scientific affectations were more to weird people out or look cool than to contribute to the arts and humanities.

The obvious answer of course is Chomsky. He pioneered linguistics in just about every way -- not just that confusing tree-diagram stuff in syntax. One of his major works is historical and in phonology -- The Sound Pattern of English. Also laid ground in theoretical computer science -- the Chomsky hierarchy.

He would've made a good amateur scientist in other fields too, like Goethe the botanist.

Almost none of the other nominees have a passion for religious, social, economic, and political topics. You don't have to agree with Chomsky's views here, but you can't deny that he's far more immersed in these areas than the typical nerd. He would've been right at home arguing about these philosophical topics.

I don't think he'd contribute much to the arts, but he probably could've done well as an essayist.

Really, there's no one else in the 20th C who has such broad and deep interests. I was going to nominate R.A. Fisher too since he at least pioneered two major fields -- population genetics and statistics -- but he didn't have as great of an interest in the humanistic areas.

True, half of his major book is about the consequences of genetics for society, eugenics, etc., but that's just one application of his pet field. He wasn't interested broadly in philosophy, politics, economics, etc.

Anonymous said...

Im heading into low-brow territory here, away from polymath into more run-of-the-mill renaissance man.

Bruce Dickinson of heavy metal band Iron Maiden - he has written and sung with them for about 30 years. He is now a qualified airline pilot, a job he apparently does when not working with the band. He has written a couple of works of fiction (any good, dunno). He was also quite successful at fencing, seemingly to the point of being considered for the Olympic team.

Anonymous said...

Freeman Dyson
Keynes--smart guy, really into networking and all sorts of things

Anonymous said...

The OBVIOUS choices:
Steven Levitt and Malcolm Gladwell

Anonymous said...

http://www.moreintelligentlife.com/content/edward-carr/last-days-polymath

Anonymous said...

God this is a depressing thread [although I'm glad to see Claude Shannon getting some love].

But good grief - Steven Chu? STEVEN CHU? STEVEN M-F-ING CHU?!?

The idiot who believes [or pretends to believe?] in the [deliberate] hoax of global warming?

At a point in time when temperatures have been declining for 11 YEARS and when we have suddenly entered into the most catastrophic collapse in sunspot activity in pretty much the entire recorded history of astronomy and when global temperatures are plunging so rapidly that we are in serious jeopardy of entering into a new mini-Ice Age?

PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE TELL ME YOU WERE BEING SARCASTIC.

Who do you think Steven Chu would have been if he had been born 150 or 200 years earlier?

Thomas Robert Malthus?

Sister Ann Lee?

Karl Marx?

Anonymous said...

Sorry "Sister Ann Lee" should have been "Mother Ann Lee".

silly girl said...

Interesting, Steve--nary a black-man in the running.

You don't think black folks produce deep thinkers?


Tamara,

Steve is soliciting the opinions of others. Please submit a black person. We would welcome it.

RobertHume said...

Feynman was certainly great, but not way above Einstein, Heisenberg, Dirac, etc., in fundamental accplishment; and with nothing of great accomplishment in other fields, mostly because, possibly that he was not interested in other fields, he was enthralled by the natural world.

Anonymous said...

>What 20th Century figure would have cut the widest swathe in the late 17th Century?<

Probably someone who drowned in the mud at Paschendale, or who went up the chimney at Auschwitz, or who froze at Kolyma, or who succumbed to scurvy during the Great Leap Forward. Or maybe just somebody who never got born because of the Pill.


FATALITY!

Steve Sailer said...

Not as a polymath, but as a multi-talented individual, Paul Robeson would have to rank high:

- All-American football player
- Lawyer
- Singer (Old Man River)
- Shakespearean actor (Othello)

Andrea said...

Among novelists, Aldous Huxley and Anthony Burgess. Both well extremely well-read and had wide-ranging knowledge of a lot of stuff.

Carl Jung sythesized the ideas in science(medicine, psychology, physiology), Western cultures, world cultures, religions, myths, and a whole bunch of other stuff.

Andrea said...

When it comes to debunking all sorts of crap, John Stossel is a polymath(or poly-anti-math) of sorts.

Andrea said...

FOR CHRISSAKES, how did we forget to name the GREATEST polymath of them all, Cecil Adams?

http://www.straightdope.com/

kudzu bob said...

I'm glad to hear Linus Pauling's name mentioned. Thanks to his work and writings on vitamin C and other nutrients, I haven't been sick in many years.

Argent Paladin said...

Let's define terms here. I propose that a polymath, minimally, should appear in the top 100 most influential people in the fields of math or science, some field of artistic endeavor AND politics or business.
With these requirements, Steve Jobs might be a good candidate. I begrudgingly admit Chomsky.
Are there any politically influential, scientifically minded self-made multi-millionaires? And, like Franklin, the person has to have succeeded in everything he did.

Calvin said...

"Almost none of the other nominees have a passion for religious, social, economic, and political topics. You don't have to agree with Chomsky's views here, but you can't deny that he's far more immersed in these areas than the typical nerd. He would've been right at home arguing about these philosophical topics."

"but he didn't have as great of an interest in the humanistic areas.

"He wasn't interested broadly in philosophy, politics, economics, etc.

you're confusing polymaths with public intellectuals.

there are plenty of specialists that are blowhards who spend an inordinate amount of time giving their opinions on political, social, cultural, etc. topics. they're not polymaths.

Nanonymous said...

Nicolas Tesla and Francis Crick.

Both made tremendous contributions on a wide range of topic within a single field but both would, undoubtedly, make premiere 17th century polymaths.

Chomsky, think, is a good choice too. Not so sure about Feynman.

Andrea said...

This is what I call genius.

http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/168/how-did-scott-conclude-its-toilet-tissue-lasted-28-longer

Anonymous said...

Yggdrasil should be considered a polymath. He's written extensively on politics, economics, biology, and even film reviews.

robert said...

Nobody has mentioned two Frenchmen who, if hardly in the Leibniz or Goethe class, counted as polymaths at the time (i.e. the mid-20th century):

* André Malraux

* Jacques Soustelle (world-ranking anthropologist before he became involved with Algérie Française and thus got clobbered by De Gaulle)

Anonymous said...

Paul Robeson

Another really evil guy.

Grumpy Old Man said...

Feynman is a great choice, but consider Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov and C.P.Snow.

Anonymous said...

Look, to have a career like Franklin, in addition to the theoretical genius, you also need the outgoing, cheerful, optimistic personality that can attract people to work with you and around you and for you.

I have never met any of the guys on this list, but my guess would be that most of them were deeply introverted, anti-social nerds [at best, and, at worst, Stalinist megolamaniacs - like Einstein & Robeson].

In that respect, to mimic Franklin, you would need to be looking more towards someone like a Robert Noyce, who did both basic research and empire-building at Shockley, Fairchild, and Intel. [Shockley on the other hand, at least as I understand him, would fall into the category of deeply introverted, anti-social nerd - in other words, your basic iSteve reader.]

Although he straddled the 19th & 20th centuries, Thomas Alva Edison had a similar sort of career, excelling in both basic research and empire building [a century later, there are still viable business entities like General Electric, Edison International, Con Edison, and about a gazillion other firms which evolved from the framework of the Edison empire].

The Wright Brothers, on the other hand, were some of the greatest engineers who ever lived, but after they patented the heavier-than-air flying machine, their business ventures all seem to have ended in tatters.

Anonymous said...

"I'd go with Einstein before JvN. Some recent candidates here"

Jorn,

I hope you were kidding with that list. Here are some of the names that were listed:

Noam Chomsky
Syed al-Attas (look him up)
Michael Ignatieff
George Foreman (!)

Anonymous said...

Paul Johnson

Anonymous said...

Was this blog entry inspired by this piece?

http://moreintelligentlife.com/content/edward-carr/last-days-polymath

Anonymous said...

"Yggdrasil should be considered a polymath. He's written extensively on politics, economics, biology, and even film reviews."

If Ygg qualifies, then so does Truth.

sorenk said...

Not as a polymath, but as a multi-talented individual, Paul Robeson would have to rank high:

- All-American football player
- Lawyer
- Singer (Old Man River)
- Shakespearean actor (Othello)


and he's the namesake of a high school where African-American values are taken very seriously:

http://cbs2chicago.com/local/Robeson.High.School.2.1251642.html

Ygg said...

"If Ygg qualifies, then so does Truth."

If you're saying this, you must be from a certain Mediterranean group.

sorenk said...

Reposed because the link on the first one didn't come through correctly.

Not as a polymath, but as a multi-talented individual, Paul Robeson would have to rank high:

- All-American football player
- Lawyer
- Singer (Old Man River)
- Shakespearean actor (Othello)


and he's the namesake of a high school where African-American values are taken very seriously:

http://cbs2chicago.com/local/Robeson.High.School.2.1251642.html

Anonymous said...

Regarding Einstein, some have argued that he may have plagiarized or at least taken credit for some ideas that weren't his own: Relativity priority dispute

The economist Maurice Allais who won the "Nobel" Memorial Prize in Economics believes that Einstein was a plagiarist.

Andrea said...

It still begs the question, do all the people we've mentioned really qualify as the 20th century equivalent of 17th century polymaths who really made a difference--came up with great discoveries or innovations--in several fields. Many of the people mentioned above were indeed geniuses who did remarkable things, but how many of them really MADE A DIFFERENCE in fields outside their specialty? Einstein was a physics guy. Turing was math/computer guy. He may have been supersmart and known A LOT of stuff, but did he make a difference in fields outside his main profession? Jared Diamond is supposed to know 9 languages, natural science, anthropology, etc, but did he make a REAL DIFFERENCE outside his main field which is anthropology?

Many people today have more knowledge about whole bunch of stuff, much more so than anyone in the 17th century. A highschool library is better stocked than the libraries of many scholars back in the old days. But, it's not enough to know a lot to MAKE A DIFFERENCE since the 20th century. To make a difference, you have study one particular field for yrs and yrs and yrs. So, there may really be no one in the 20th century who compares with polymaths of the 17th century.

Before specialization, intellectualism was like the decathalon where you could be pretty good and at this event, that event. But, once each event got specialized, you had to devote full time to winning the 100 m sprint, high jump, vault, etc instead of dabbling in all of them. You had to be supergreat in one instead of great in all.

Greg said...

Hayek

Neuroscience, law, institutions, pure theory of economics, philosophy of science, biography, history of ideas, etc. Etc.

Kevin K said...

Arthur C. Clark had some great conceptual science ideas as well as a great writer.

Anonymous said...

Jamie Foxx.

Musician (highly accomplished pianist).
Vocalist.
Stand-up comedian.
Serious dramatic actor.
Lewd radio host.

Anonymous said...

Shockley on the other hand, at least as I understand him, would fall into the category of deeply introverted, anti-social nerd - in other words, your basic iSteve reader.



Hey! I saw that!

Jorn said...

How many of my 26 conjectures would have to be confirmed before I qualify for consideration?

Edward said...

Peter Turchin - Mathematics, Biology, History.

Stephen McIntyre - Geologist, Businessman, Statistician, world class squash player, his name is STEVE.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_McIntyre

These thinkers straddle the 20/21st Century.

Josuah Lawrence Cahmberlain said...

Jorn

John Von Neuman's work on Quantum Mechanics was not trivial by any stretch of the imagination.

Von Neuman's -along with Francis Murray- book on the mathematical foundations on Quantum Mechanics and his Rings of Operators was breath taking work. This work of profound mathematicl significance whose impat is felt to this day.

Von Neuman showd that Heisenbergs Matric Mechanics and the Shridinger Wave Echanics were mathematically equivalent. Every graduate student has to learn this in first yeat grad quantum mechanics.

Von Neumann and Murray's work on the rings of operators was mathematically revolutionary. It genrated some of the deepest ideas ever in mathematics.

Not only that, but there is a direct line from Murray and Von Neuman's work on Rings of Operators to the cutting edge of mathematics and physics these days.

Specifically, Murray and
Von Neuman discovered a mathematical stucture called subfactors of which ther are various species(type 1,2 and 3 with several subspecies of type 2 and 3). Subfactor theory has revolutioned mathematics and the great potetnial to revolution physics.

French Mathematician and Field medalist Alain Connes has built upon Von Neuman Algebra and C* algebra's(Von Neuamn algebra'-W algebras-can easily be made into a c* algebra) and created the field of noncommutatice geometry which is one of the most cutting edge fields of mathematics these days that has already had significant applications to physics-mostly condensed matter physics and statistical mechanics.

There is a direct line from Von Neuman algebras to what may be considered the most cutting edge and futuristic area of physics and technolgy:Topological Quantum Computing. Bill Gates hired toplogist and Field medalist Michael Freedman to run the Microsoft Q station which does mighty serious research into topologiucal quantum computing.

John Von Neumann's-and Francis Murray's- contribution to Quantum Mechanics are not the least bit trivial.

Also, Von Neuamn algebras have a ddep onection to the field of knot theory. Field medalist research into Von Neu,ann algebras of a new knot invariant of much greater power than previous knot invariants. His rsearch into Von Neuaman algbras has direct aplication in DNA research.

Anonymous said...

“Due to the Flynn Effect and greater access to education, the situation is much more competitive today, as it is in organized sports, for example.”

Don’t assume that the Flynn effect means that people are actually getting smarter:
http://www.uu.nl/uupublish/content/wicherts2004.pdf

John Anello said...

Booker T. Washington was an orator, author, educator, and philosopher….not bad for a man who was born a slave. I realize most of his contributions were made during the late 19th century but I suppose we could stretch it a little bit.

Anonymous said...

John Whiteside "Jack" Parsons (1914-1952) - scientist and sorcerer - Jet Propulsion laboratory co-founder, poet, writer, libertarian philosopher.

Rrrrrroger said...

Mr. Canaday:

It's not like Haldane didn't try to "participate prominently in political life." After all, he was chairman of the editorial board of the Daily Worker and wrote "Why Professional Workers should be Communists." He thought that professionals should be Communists because Marxism was "scientific."

He was also writing in defense of Lysenkoism as late as 1948. But there is an article in the Journal of the History of Biology, vol. 40, p. 557, that says that's alright because he was probably lying.

Anonymous said...

"If you're saying this, you must be from a certain Mediterranean group."

Try again, "polymath".

Anthony said...

Lower-grade polymath: Brian May, CBE.

I have to disagree with Chomsky as a polymath - someone who's career centered in Linguistics doesn't deserve the title if they only know one language.

josh said...

Re the deathbed conversion to Catholicism:reminds me of Oscar Wilde's famous line that he would like to die as a Catholic ,but couldnt imagine living as one.Wilde also said;"The only thing that sustains one through life is the consciousness of the immense inferiority of everybody else..." Sounds like the framework of Game was set down by the worlds most famous gay dude. (And he does look a bit like Mystery!)

none of the above said...

Among people currently active, I suspect Stephen Wolfram is a good candidate. (He's done some real science and he's a successful entrepreneur.)

David Friedman seems like a somewhat reasonable candidate--a physicist by formal training, an economist by upbringing, a law professor (focusing on economic analysis of law), something of a politicial philosopher, a published author (albeit with a rather Mary-Sue-ish main character), etc. He hasn't lit the world on fire in any of these areas, though.

I think it's hard to succeed in many different areas of life, partly because of the larger pool of competitors, but also partly because success in many fields comes with golden handcuffs--significant academic success usually gives you a path to a comfortable life in which you can continue your research or slowly fade into advising students and playing the academic politics game. Similarly, significant success in business usually means you do very well financially to stay in place as the CEO or CTO of your company. (Though some people have done well creating multiple startups, so that they get to innovate without having to stick around for the boring grow-the-business part.) And success in politics means a permanent source of future wealth as a lobbyist or speaker or whatever. People can and do sometimes move between these, but those golden handcuffs make it less appealing to do so, I think.

The Cunning Linguist said...

Tom Dowd

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_Dowd

Worked on the Manhattan Project as a teenager, went on to pioneer stereo and multitrack recording at Atlantic Records: Classic sides by Ray Charles, John Coltrane, Cream...

JoeShipman said...

I like the "made a difference" criterion. Feynman was all science. Chomsky qualifies in science and politics. Von Neumann did math, science, and government advising. So did Dyson. Turing contributed to math, biology, and extremely importantly to computer science and military affairs.

I'd say Turing is the closest to a true polymath; none of these men made great artistic or literary contributions though all were good writers.

Tom Scholz is a good suggestion I had not thought of; I'm ashamed not to know more about him, since I was at MIT not too long after him.

Franklin still tops the list of polymaths because of his scientific, social, political, and literary importance. Among the social institutions to whose modern form he made major contributions: post offices, fire departments, public libraries, and philanthropy. This is not to mention the social impact of his invention of the lightning rod, of his revolutionary diplomacy, and of his political genius (his greatest invention was the United States of America, whose constitutional form and early spirit owe more to him than to anyone else who was not elected President in the 18th Century).

Baloo said...

And Franklin was a cartoonist. That settles it.

Anonymous said...

Chomsky has some competence in French, German, Arabic and Hebrew. Definitely fluent in the latter. Able to understand Foucault in French.

Not that this strikes me as particularly relevant.

jeppo said...

Bodybuilder, actor, businessman and politician Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Truth said...

If Chomsky is a polymath, then any intelligent person would have to mention Robeson as well. In addition to all of the strengths Steve listed, Robeson is reputed to have had fair ability in 27 languages. This means that he is probably more of a "lingust" then Chomsky himself, and this is Noam's métier, not Robeson's. These included languages as diverse as Russian, Chinese, Gaelic, Spanish, Russian and Swahili.

There is a great prejudice toward accomplishment in the physical sciences here, but that is simply not every smart person's interest in life.

Anonymous said...

Im the anon who mentioned Bruce Dickinson, I thought of Brian May - then forget to add him to my comment. And Schwarzenegger too, but I figured him to be too low-brow compared to Dickinson.

I think one who has been overlooked might well be our own Albertosaurus. From things he has said he seems accomplished in more than one field.

Nice try said...

This means that he is probably more of a "lingust" then Chomsky himself, and this is Noam's métier, not Robeson's.

Being a linguist has nothing to do with being a fluent speaker of various languages. Being a linguist means scientifically studying language, not practicing or speaking various languages.

Anonymous said...

If the test is making a difference outside your field, then obviously George Bush. He revolutionized the fields of international diplomacy, nation building, domestic finance, primary and secondary education, late night tv., the list is endless.

Anonymous said...

Gell-Mann nominates Murray Gell-Mann.

Jorn said...

"Many generations of graduate students who might have been tempted to try to construct hidden-variables
theories were beaten into submission by the claim that von Neumann, 1932, had proved that it could not be done. A few years later (see Jammer, 1974, p. 273) Grete Hermann, 1935, pointed out a glaring deficiency in the argument, but she seems to have been entirely ignored. Everybody continued to cite the von Neumann proof. A third of a century passed before John Bell, 1966,
rediscovered the fact that von Neumann's no-hidden-variables proof was based on an assumption that can only
be described as silly..."

[pdf]

Truth said...

"Being a linguist means scientifically studying language, not practicing or speaking various languages."

But of course, and being a doctor means studying medicine.

Felix said...

Anonymous said:
“I would not place the lowly Franklin with super-geniuses like Leibniz and Descartes. That's like comparing Plato to Obama.”

Unless Anon belongs to the Nobel Peace Prize Committee, I trust he/she meant “like comparing Obama to Plato.”

Anonymous said...

"There is a great prejudice toward accomplishment in the physical sciences here, but that is simply not every smart person's interest in life."

Indeed and I 100% agree on Robeson. I think a lot of the Steveonauts are mentioning Chomsky because his work on linguistics has an HBD bent. I notice nobody mentioned Jared Diamond eventhough his accomplishments are atleast comparable to Chomsky.

David said...

Shostakovich said Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov sucked.

Specifically, Solz was a frustrated Stalin and Sak was a two-faced phony (so was Shos, but who wasn't in S. Russia?). That's in _Testimony_.

Still laughing about Chomsky. Linguistics is closer to voodoo or Christian Science than it is to physics, biology, or business. Hey! What about Mary Baker Eddy? Philosopher, theologian, businesswomen. She also knitted in her spare time, probably.

Nice try said...

I'll repeat myself, since your reply and the analogy therein suggest that you are still confused:

Being a linguist has nothing to do with being a fluent speaker of various languages. Being a linguist means scientifically studying language, not practicing or speaking various languages.

David said...

I mean linguistics apart from learning language. We've been told that they are two different things.

Hasn't anyone mentioned da Vinci? Allow me to do so.

Truth said...

"I'll repeat myself, since your reply and the analogy therein suggest that you are still confused:"

Sir, if you'll notice, I originally put the word "linguist" in parenthesis.

I'm well aware of what a linguist does, but a linguist who speaks one language is akin to a "humorist" studies humor, but cannot make anyone laugh.

kudzu bob said...

>a linguist who speaks one language is akin to a "humorist" studies humor, but cannot make anyone laugh<

Absurd. A humorist does not study humor, but rather is "someone who acts, speaks, or writes in an amusing way." You know, like Will Rogers or Mark Twain.

A more satisfactory analogy would be someone who calls himself "Truth" but invariably fails to get even the most elementary matters of fact right, never mind grammar or sentence construction.

Anonymous said...

I am both a cunning linguist and a master debater.* Does that make me a polymath?







*With apologies to Austin Powers.

Truth said...

Bob, when was the last time someone compared you to mosquito?

I say "when" because I strongly assume it has happened.

kudzu bob said...

Haven't you heard how mosquitoes might have killed off the mighty dinosaurs, Twoof? No, I guess not. After all, that's just a a bunch of boring old white guy stuff.

Truth said...

I never said "just" or "boring", that was your editorial, but i appreciate the knowledge.

Julian said...

It is surprisingly hard to find even an Arts polymath - that is, someone who was very good in visual arts and in writing. William Blake was a fine poet as well as visual artist. I can't think of many 20th century example. Lord Berners composed and painted well, I believe.

TCO said...

Heinlein? I think the sort who makes advances in a polymath earlier period may be different in some ways from one that prevails in the more competitive more specialized modern era. Although there hasn't been a man to match Gauss in the millenium.

Julian said...

Nabokov was, of course, a major novelist and at one time a professional lepidopterist.

I agree with the above remarks about the Internet. It gives great leverage to the intellect. Ideas can be developed, tested and published almost instantaneously.

I have noticed a tendency for some really strange combinations of fields to start bearing fruit of late: zoology and geomorphology = zoogeomorphology; Evolutionary theory and literature = Darwinian literary studies; even mediaeval studies and Australian culture = a recent book on mediaevalism in Australia.

It would be fun, and possibly productive, to run through the Dewey classification of subjects, combining disparate fields and searching on Google.

Julian said...

The blogger Dusk in Autumn has a relevant recent post:

http://akinokure.blogspot.com/2009/10/is-decline-of-genius-due-to-cheaper.html

Anonymous said...

It is surprisingly hard to find even an Arts polymath - that is, someone who was very good in visual arts and in writing. William Blake was a fine poet as well as visual artist. I can't think of many 20th century example. Lord Berners composed and painted well, I believe.

Jonathan Bowden

David said...

Julian said

> It is surprisingly hard [today] to find even an Arts polymath - that is, someone who was very good in visual arts and in writing. <

More than a few people successfully write, direct, draw, and act. Among these, Orson Welles was very good at them all.

> I have noticed a tendency for some really strange combinations of fields to start bearing fruit of late: zoology and geomorphology = zoogeomorphology; Evolutionary theory and literature = Darwinian literary studies[....] <

This is a heartening trend. The mind is still on the march!

Middletown Girl said...

http://www.moreintelligentlife.com/content/edward-carr/last-days-polymath

Interesting article: LAST DAYS OF THE POLYMATH.