The Saga of Einstein’s Brain: Pickled in a Jar for 43 Years

10 Strange Facts About Einstein.

The Saga of Einstein’s Brain: Pickled in a Jar for 43 Years and Driven Cross Country in a Trunk of a Buick!

After his death in 1955, Einstein’s brain [wiki] was removed – without permission from his family – by Thomas Stoltz Harvey [wiki], the Princeton Hospital pathologist who conducted the autopsy. Harvey took the brain home and kept it in a jar. He was later fired from his job for refusing to relinquish the organ.

Many years later, Harvey, who by then had gotten permission from Hans Albert to study Einstein’s brain, sent slices of Einstein’s brain to various scientists throughout the world. One of these scientists was Marian Diamond of UC Berkeley, who discovered that compared to a normal person, Einstein had significantly more glial cells in the region of the brain that is responsible for synthesizing information.

In another study, Sandra Witelson of McMaster University found that Einstein’s brain lacked a particular "wrinkle" in the brain called the Sylvian fissure. Witelson speculated that this unusual anatomy allowed neurons in Einstein’s brain to communicate better with each other. Other studies had suggested that Einstein’s brain was denser, and that the inferior parietal lobe, which is often associated with mathematical ability, was larger than normal brains.

The saga of Einsteins brain can be quite strange at times: in the early 1990s, Harvey went with freelance writer Michael Paterniti on a cross-country trip to California to meet Einstein’s granddaughter. They drove off from New Jersey in Harvey’s Buick Skylark with Einstein’s brain sloshing inside a jar in the trunk! Paterniti later wrote his experience in the book Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America with Einstein’s Brain

In 1998, the 85-year-old Harvey delivered Einstein’s brain to Dr. Elliot Krauss, the staff pathologist at Princeton University, the position Harvey once held:

… after safeguarding the brain for decades like it was a holy relic — and, to many, it was — he simply, quietly, gave it away to the pathology department at the nearby University Medical Center at Princeton, the university and town where Einstein spent his last two decades.

"Eventually, you get tired of the responsibility of having it. … I did about a year ago," Harvey said, slowly. "I turned the whole thing over last year [in 1998]." (Source)

Maven - Wikipedia,

Maven - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

A maven (also mavin) is a trusted expert in a particular field, who seeks to pass knowledge on to others. The word maven comes from Hebrew, via Yiddish, and means one who understands, based on an accumulation of knowledge.[1]

[edit] History

The word comes to English through Yiddish, which in turn derives from the Hebrew mevin (מבֿין), meaning "one who understands," and relates to the word binah, which denotes understanding or wisdom in general. It was first recorded in English around 1952, and popularized in the United States in the 1960s by a series of commercials created by Martin Solow for Vita Herring, featuring "The Beloved Herring Maven." The “Beloved Herring Maven“ ran in radio ads from 1964-1968, and was then brought back in 1983 with Allan Swift, the original voice of the Maven.[2]

Many sites credit Vita with popularizing the word Maven. An example of print advertisement including the Maven: "Get Vita at your favorite supermarket, grocery or delicatessen. Tell them the beloved Maven sent you. It won’t save you any money, but you’ll get the best herring".[3]

Since the 1980s it has become more common since William Safire adapted it to describe himself as "the language maven". The word is mainly confined to American English, but did not appear with the publication of the 1976 edition of Webster's Third New International Dictionary; it is, however, included in the Oxford English Dictionary second edition (1989) CD ROM version 4.0 issue of 2009. Numerous individuals and entities now affix maven or mavin to indicate their expertise in a particular area.[citation needed]

In network theory and sociology, a maven is someone who has a disproportionate influence on other members of the network.[citation needed] The role of mavens in propagating knowledge and preferences has been established in various domains, from politics to social trends.

[edit] Usage

Malcolm Gladwell used it in his book The Tipping Point (Little Brown, 2000) to describe those who are intense gatherers of information and impressions, and so are often the first to pick up on new or nascent trends. The popularity of the work of Safire and Gladwell has made the word widely used in their particular contexts. Gladwell also suggests that mavens may act most effectively when in collaboration with connectors - i.e., those people who have wide network of casual acquaintances by whom they are trusted, often a network that crosses many social boundaries and groups. Connectors can thus easily and widely distribute the advice or insights of a maven.

In the afterword of The Tipping Point, Gladwell described a "maven trap" as a method of obtaining information from mavens. In the book he gave the example of the toll-free telephone number on the back of a bar of Ivory soap, which one could call with questions or comments about the product. Gladwell's opinion is that only those who are passionate or knowledgeable about soap would bother to call and that this is a method by which the company could inexpensively glean valuable information about their market.

Michael Chabon's 2007 noir-ish alternate reality novel "The Yiddish Policemen's Union" contained a pivotal character called "The Boundary Maven" whose knowledge of orthodox Jewish rules regarding the ability of people to legitimately walk within their own property on the Sabbath allowed him to use string between lamp-posts to create expansive "personal" boundaries for those willing to pay him.

[edit] References


Internet "dating site for finding Your Sperm Donor Or Co-Parent

Sperm Bank | Sperm Donation | Sperm Donor | Artificial Insemination

A brand new website which has been created to help anyone who is looking for sperm donation or wants to find a sperm donor, a surrogate or a co-parent to have a child.

Co-Parents.net is a dating site for co-parenting and sperm donors.

We are an introduction and social networking website aimed at connecting and introducing men, women and couples who would like to have a baby but haven't found the right person to have one with yet. You can also communicate with other people directly on our sperm donor forum from all over the world such as USA, UK, Australia and many other regions.If you're in need of a sperm donor, join our sperm donation forum today! Here at Co-parents.net, we have more than 20.000 sperm donor profiles to choose from.

The sperm donor search tools let you view sperm donor's information on line by age, gender and country.

We update our sperm donor lists regularly, so the sperm donor search helps you to find the donor you seek.

Co-Parents.net provides service to anyone who wants a child but can't do so the traditional way, as well as those prepared to help these people by Sperm Donation. Co-parent.net helps you find your co-parent, your sperm donor or your surrogate mother. All sperm donors whether non anonymous or anonymous has to go under a medical test before the sperm donation takes place. This medical screening is an important process as it verifies that the baby you are going to have with the donated sperm will be healthy.

Whether you are a female, male, single or in a couple, gay, lesbian or straight we can try and find you a match, with advanced search options, helpful tools and clear sperm donor profiles.

Register Now or go to the Sperm Donor Forum

similar site here:

www.co-parent-search.com - Find sperm donors, egg donors or co-parents. Become a co-parent, sperm donor or egg donor. UK, USA, Canada, Australia, worldwide. | co-parent-search.com

Meet the co-parents: friends not lovers

Meet the co-parents: friends not lovers - Telegraph

What’s it like to have a child with someone who’s a friend but not a lover? More and more people are doing just that, to satisfy their broodiness. Helen Croydon investigates

Sabrina, Zaide, Kam and Kirsty are  one example of a  'co-parenting’ family Sabrina, Zaide, Kam and Kirsty Photo: EVA VERMANDEL

Seven years ago, when Sabrina Morgan, 33, was single and desperate for a child, she found herself chatting to Kam Wong, 41, a gay man who was longing to be a father, in an online fertility forum. 'I instantly thought he was genuine, down-to-earth, laidback and flexible,’ says Sabrina.

'We exchanged pictures. It wasn’t about sexual attraction, obviously, but it was important what he looked like. I asked him if he had any history of baldness and loose teeth. It was part humour but it was also my way to steer towards more serious questions, like does he have any genetic health conditions.’

For Kam, who is in a long-term relationship, contacting Sabrina was about more than being a sperm donor: 'I adore children. The desire to have my own has always been with me. Because of my sexuality I thought it might never happen. The urge grew stronger in my thirties until one day I researched options. When I met Sabrina I was very nervous. This was my chance to fulfil my dreams.’

It took Sabrina six years to conceive through IVF. By then she had met Kirsty Slack, 37, who is now her romantic partner. Sabrina and Kirsty live together and are Zaide’s primary carers. Kam visits weekly, which will increase as Zaide gets older.

Kam and Sabrina are one of the growing number of couples in so-called 'co-parenting’ relationships – biological parents who have a close but platonic relationship and both contribute to child-rearing . Co-parenting isn’t just for the gay community. Straight men and women are choosing to put romance aside in the name of reproduction.

Catherine, 41, met Steve, 39, on the website co-parentmatch.com. He is gay and she has been single for two years. He lives in London for his job as an analyst but will join Catherine in Swansea if and when he gets her pregnant, through artificial insemination (AI).

It isn’t that Catherine doesn’t want to find love but that she wants a child more: 'I’ve stopped looking for a partner. Of course I need love, but I can have a partner at any age. I can only have a child now,’ she says.

Traditionally, fertility networking sites introduce anonymous donors and recipients and the relationship ends there. Yet co-parentmatch.com and its smaller competitor, coparents.net, have added a new dimension; men can either donate sperm anonymously or opt to share in parenting duties, too. Both sites report a marked rise in numbers ticking the co-parenting box.

Tomorrow sees the launch of pollentree.com, started by Patrick and Rita D’Alton-Harrison, ex-lawyers from north London. Rita had the idea after a number of single female friends asked for legal advice on sperm donation. 'One had looked into IVF but found the prices extortionate so turned to the internet to seek a donor. I was horrified. That’s when we had the idea to create a safe environment for women like her to explore all parenting routes.

'We can’t believe the number of young, straight women joining our site who say they are simply not prepared to wait for Mr Right. The attitude seems to be, “I’m not going to compromise with a relationship just to have children.”’

Catherine started her online search after a break-up from a three-year relationship with a man who didn’t want children. 'I’d just turned 39 and thought, “I don’t have time for this to happen again.” In a worst-case scenario I would seek an anonymous donor, but I’ve always thought a child needs a father. At the very least I wanted a donor who would visit regularly.’

Catherine chatted to Steve for a month online before meeting: 'When I saw him my heart jumped. I thought, “Finally it’s going to happen!” I was happy for him to stay in London, but he wanted to be fully involved. Now I’m helping him find a job in Swansea.’

If Catherine conceives they plan to live together for a trial period: 'We know we could end up like a bickering couple. If so we will live separately. I have friends with small children – I could see how hard it would be for me to live alone. Who would go out to get nappies and milk if I ran out?’

Leila Knox, 47, has had less luck. She didn’t hear about co-parenting until last September, after three years exploring other routes, including two expensive cycles of intrauterine insemination, a form of AI, at a licensed fertility clinic. Treatment costs up to £1,000 per ovulation cycle, plus £600 for each vial of sperm. Leila beat the odds to conceive but miscarried at four weeks.

Fertility clinics or any organisation involved in processing, storing or selling frozen gametes in Britain must have a licence from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA). There is no law governing co-parent or donor websites because they are merely acting as an introduction agency. Donors at registered sperm banks remain anonymous until children reach the age of 18.

But this rule doesn’t apply to children born from 'fresh’ samples in private donor agreements. That was a plus for Leila: 'I was never comfortable with the idea of my child not knowing anything about their father. When I found out there are websites where you can meet the donors, I was on the hunt!’

Leila’s first 'date’ in her co-parent search, was Paul, a 43-year-old pilot. 'We met at a Café Rouge for drinks. It felt more intense than a date. You are choosing someone who will pass on traits to the person you are going to spend the rest of your life with – your child.

'He was clean-cut with dark hair and green eyes. He told me he was a strict Catholic and had had only one serious relationship, with a girl from his church, who didn’t want children. He ached to be a parent and this was the quickest way he could make that happen.’

After three meetings they set a date to do the deed. 'You’d think that would be less weird than having sex. It was more weird. Picture it: there’s a stranger in your bathroom masturbating while you go for a walk around the block. When you get back he hands you a pot and leaves. You’re left to do the female bit, which is messy and uncomfortable.’

A pregnancy test 10 days later came out negative. After finding the encounter with Paul so awkward, Leila decided to try natural insemination (NI) – a euphemism in fertility forums for full sex – with her next potential suitor, Carl. 'I can see that could be unthinkable for a woman who is gay, in a relationship or has been assaulted ,’ she says. 'But I’m single. I don’t have barriers about sex.’

Carl was a single, attractive, 35-year-old IT consultant. After phone calls and emails they met while Leila was ovulating. 'I have rules for normal dates – I would never sleep with someone straight away. This meant throwing the rulebook out the window,’ she says.

'He was attractive but I wasn’t attracted to him. He had two children from a previous relationship. He said he wanted more but didn’t want the full-time responsibilities of raising them. I’ve extrapolated from my experiences that many guys like to feel their genes are “out there”.’

Leila did become pregnant but miscarried at 12 weeks. Most recent in her search is Luke, a scientist from Denmark. They’ve talked daily since November and Luke is planning a London trip to coincide with Leila’s ovulation. He would consider moving to London to be close to their child and even live with Leila, though she would prefer to keep her independence.

Leila and Catherine have a rosy vision of happy platonic families, but some experts are sceptical. Rachel Andrew, a clinical psychologist , says, 'As with any couple, the mother and father may differ on parenting values such as discipline or learning. A first-time parent is likely to be more flippant, thinking they’ll agree on everything and those things will fall into place. You don’t know if an arrangement like this will be a help or a hindrance.’

Kairen Cullen, a psychologist and the author of Introducing Child Psychology, says, 'Parenting is full of challenges and hiccups. The emotional connection between couples is the glue that holds it together. I would worry about the implications of an absence of romance and sex between parents.’

Yet Kam and Sabrina say they haven’t encountered any hurdles so far. Before Zaide was born, they each put in writing their priorities for their relationship.

For Sabrina and Kirsty it came down to practicalities: 'The main thing was level of contact. We agreed we would wait at least eight months before Kam takes Zaide out alone. As he gets older we’d like Kam to have more of a role so we can have child-free days with each other; I suggested we all take a holiday together once a year. I wanted to set boundaries too, so I wrote that Kam should give us ample notice when he visits.’

Kam highlighted Zaide’s education: 'I wanted to be the decision-maker on schooling. I said I would set funds aside that he can use for university if he wants. Being Chinese, I would like him to learn Cantonese. And I wanted my own family – his grandparents – to be part of his life.’

'We were incredibly open and honest,’ adds Kirsty. 'We talked about everything from discipline styles to the moral values we want to instil in Zaide , right down to how many toys he has.’

Their written agreement isn’t legally binding but acts as a point of guidance. 'We constantly say that if any of us feels uncomfortable or unhappy about something, we will sit down and discuss things fairly,’ says Sabrina.

They don’t see themselves as pioneers, certainly not within the gay community where many couples have children using donors. But they do see themselves as role models for co-parenting. They hope to share their experiences with aspiring co-parents at the Alternative Families Show in London in September. 'The key thing is to communicate,’ advises Sabrina. 'Choose someone you would be friends with outside of this situation.’

Kairen Cullen warns that we don’t yet know how children could be affected by a non-conventional family backdrop. 'Parents are the first teachers. That is how children become motivated to engage in relationships as they grow up. It is important that children witness a range of adult relationships including romantic ones. If all children were brought up in a co-parenting framework it would be hard to speculate about the long-term effects.’

But co-parenting may not be unconventional for long. About 800 children each year are born in Britain through donated sperm, according to the HFEA. Donor conception has become a buzz topic since the success of films like The Kids Are All Right, about two siblings born through AI, and the More 4 documentary Sperm Donor Unknown, about a woman’s search for her biological father.

Sabrina asserts that far from co-parenting being an inferior model, there are aspects of it that beat conventional parenting. ' We selected a partner on an intellectual level. Most couples rely on that gut reaction of finding someone attractive. We didn’t choose on an aesthetic or instinctive level. It was about carefully selecting someone based on long-term qualities. If couples separate, they have to renegotiate boundaries around access to children. But we already have those things worked out.’

Living Apart Together - “Meet the Co-Parents: Friends Not Lovers”

FRC Blog » “Meet the Co-Parents: Friends Not Lovers”

“Meet the Co-Parents: Friends Not Lovers”

by Cathy Ruse
August 29, 2011

A few years ago the New York Times ran a story about a new social phenomenon: Couples, who claim to love each other, who have an exclusive sexual relationship, and who share financial expenses, are choosing not to live together. The arrangement is called “Living Apart Together,” and apparently it’s on the rise. The couples interviewed spoke of their need for “alone time” and “personal space” and a desire not to “wait on” the other person they claim to love. “Why bother joining households and lose a great city apartment?” one suggested.

Reading that story brought to mind how Woody Allen once described the perfect arrangement he had with Mia Farrow: separate apartments on opposite sides of Central Park where they could see each other’s lights go off at night. But we know how that ended. (For those too young to remember: Woody ended up having an affair with, and then marrying, his own stepdaughter, and in his defense famously said, “The heart wants what the heart wants.”)

Last week the London Telegraph reviewed another new social relationship trend: people who are neither married nor in love (nor, in some cases, even acquainted) are apparently having children together through the use of in vitro fertilization. Why?

The story leads with examples of homosexuals who wanted to have a child of their own partnering up with people of the opposite sex to share biological material. But also interviewed was this single heterosexual woman, approaching the end of her fertile years, who explained: “In a worst-case scenario I would seek an anonymous donor, but I’ve always thought a child needs a father. At the very least I wanted a donor who would visit regularly.”

What kid wouldn’t want Daddy Sperm visiting regularly? But why does little Johnny hide under the bed when the door bell rings?


Mind Control » About us

Mind Control » About us

MIND TECH established to counter the ethical anarchy existing nanotechnologies invasion of the human brain (brain – computer integration), and hush-hush thinking around experiments with human sacrifice:

This is intrusive, unethical, therefore, must we seek for a debate and political intervention: to engage in mind control. Scientists find continuously new, increasingly sophisticated methods to remotely execute imaging methodology for communicating with the brain. Computer technology will lead to artificial copies of our human brain. Of course there is also a good side: The data could affect mental illness and much more.

Therefore, throughout this borderland, and gray, lawless zones reflected and put under public control.

Human neural network is melting more and more together with digital technology.

No one knows what these new technologies will result.
Why there is in Sweden ethical debates and laws on the subject?
Well, for research in Sweden, europe is currently alone possesses the knowledge of distance communication with the brain.

An ethical debate and subsequent laws would lead to a moratorium on further research.Currently, research is allowed unimpeded run.

In cooperation with the media seem to MIND TECH for an open debate on the subject.

Magnus Olsson

Jungfrudansen 64, 2tr


Tel: 0709 26 30 04


E-Mail: bionicgate@live.se


Philip Zimbardo: The Secret Powers of Time (Animated)

FORA.tv - Philip Zimbardo: The Secret Powers of Time (Animated)

Philip Zimbardo: The Secret Powers of Time (Animated) from The RSA on FORA.tv

40 Belief-Shaking Remarks From a Ruthless Nonconformist

40 Belief-Shaking Remarks From a Ruthless Nonconformist

40 Belief-Shaking Remarks From a Ruthless Nonconformist


If there’s one thing Friedrich Nietzsche did well, it’s obliterate feel-good beliefs people have about themselves. He has been criticized for being a misanthrope, a subvert, a cynic and a pessimist, but I think these assessments are off the mark. I believe he only wanted human beings to be more honest with themselves.

He did have a remarkable gift for aphorism — he once declared, “It is my ambition to say in ten sentences what others say in a whole book.” A hundred years after his death, Nietzsche retains his disturbing talent for turning a person’s worldview upside-down with one jarring remark.

Even today his words remain controversial. They hit nerves. Most of his views are completely at odds with the status quo.

Here are 40 unsympathetic statements from the man himself. Many you’ll agree with. Others you will resist, but these are the ones to pay the most attention to — your beliefs are being challenged. It’s either an opportunity to grow, or to insist that you already know better. If any of them hit a nerve in you, ask yourself why.


1. People who have given us their complete confidence believe that they have a right to ours. The inference is false, a gift confers no rights.

2. He that humbleth himself wishes to be exalted.

3. The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently.

4. There are no facts, only interpretations.

5. Morality is but the herd-instinct in the individual.

6. No one talks more passionately about his rights than he who in the depths of his soul doubts whether he has any.

7. Without music, life would be a mistake.

8. Anyone who has declared someone else to be an idiot, a bad apple, is annoyed when it turns out in the end that he isn’t.

9. In large states public education will always be mediocre, for the same reason that in large kitchens the cooking is usually bad.

10. The man of knowledge must be able not only to love his enemies but also to hate his friends.

11. A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything.

12. We often refuse to accept an idea merely because the way in which it has been expressed is unsympathetic to us.

13. No victor believes in chance.

14. Convictions are more dangerous foes of truth than lies.

15. Talking much about oneself can also be a means to conceal oneself.

16. It is not a lack of love, but a lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages.

17. The essence of all beautiful art, all great art, is gratitude.

18. The future influences the present just as much as the past.

19. The most common lie is that which one tells himself; lying to others is relatively an exception.

20. I counsel you, my friends: Distrust all in whom the impulse to punish is powerful.

21. Rejoicing in our joy, not suffering over our suffering, is what makes someone a friend.

22. God is a thought who makes crooked all that is straight.

23. Success has always been a great liar.

24. Nothing on earth consumes a man more quickly than the passion of resentment.

25. What do you regard as most humane? To spare someone shame.

26. Whatever is done for love always occurs beyond good and evil.

27. When a hundred men stand together, each of them loses his mind and gets another one.

28. When one has a great deal to put into it a day has a hundred pockets.

29. Whoever despises himself nonetheless respects himself as one who despises.

30. All things are subject to interpretation. Whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.

31. What is good? All that heightens the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself. What is bad? All that is born of weakness. What is happiness? The feeling that power is growing, that resistance is overcome.

32. Fear is the mother of morality.

33. A politician divides mankind into two classes: tools and enemies.

34. Everyone who has ever built anywhere a new heaven first found the power thereto in his own hell.

35. There is more wisdom in your body than in your deepest philosophy.

36. The mother of excess is not joy but joylessness.

37. The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart — not something that comes upon the earth or after death.

38. What is the mark of liberation? No longer being ashamed in front of oneself.

39. Glance into the world just as though time were gone: and everything crooked will become straight to you.

40. We should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once.


Video: Rupert Murdoch on Wendi Deng: my 'very tough' wife - Telegraph

Video: Rupert Murdoch on Wendi Deng: my 'very tough' wife - Telegraph

The last days of the polymath | More Intelligent Life

The word “polymath” teeters somewhere between Leo­nardo da Vinci and Stephen Fry. Embracing both one of history’s great intellects and a brainy actor, writer, director and TV personality, it is at once presumptuous and banal. Djerassi doesn’t want much to do with it. “Nowadays people that are called polymaths are dabblers—are dabblers in many different areas,” he says. “I aspire to be an intellectual polygamist. And I deliberately use that metaphor to provoke with its sexual allusion and to point

People who know a lot about a lot have long been an exclusive club, but now they are an endangered species. Edward Carr tracks some down ...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Autumn 2009

CARL DJERASSI can remember the moment when he became a writer. It was 1993, he was a professor of chemistry at Stanford University in California and he had already written books about science and about his life as one of the inventors of the Pill. Now he wanted to write a literary novel about writers’ insecurities, with a central character loosely modelled on Norman Mailer, Philip Roth and Gore Vidal.

His wife, Diane Middlebrook, thought it was a ridiculous idea. She was also a professor—of literature. “She admired the fact that I was a scientist who also wrote,” Djerassi says. He remembers her telling him, “‘You’ve been writing about a world that writers know little about. You’re writing the real truth inside of almost a closed tribe. But there are tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people who know more about writing than you do. I advise you not to do this.’ ”

Even at 85, slight and snowy-haired, Djerassi is a det­ermined man. You sense his need to prove that he can, he will prevail. Sitting in his London flat, he leans forward to fix me with his hazel eyes. “I said, ‘ok. I’m not going to show it to you till I finish. And if I find a publisher then I’ll give it to you.’ ”

Eventually Djerassi got the bound galleys of his book. “We were leaving San Francisco for London for our usual summer and I said ‘Look, would you read this now?’ She said, ‘Sure, on the plane.’ So my wife sits next to me and of course I sit and look over. And I still remember, I had a Trollope, 700 pages long, and I couldn’t read anything because I wanted to see her expression.”

Diane Middlebrook died of cancer in 2007 and, as Djerassi speaks, her presence grows stronger. By the end it is as if there are three of us in the room. “She was always a fantastic reader,” he says. “She read fast and continuously. And suddenly you hear the snap of the book closing, like a thunder clap. And I looked at her, and she then looked at me. She always used to call me, not ‘Carl’ or ‘Darling’, she used to call me ‘Chemist’ in a dear, affectionate sort of way. It was always ‘Chemist’. And she said, ‘Chemist, this is good’.”

Carl Djerassi is a polymath. Strictly speaking that means he is someone who knows a lot about a lot. But Djerassi also passes a sterner test: he can do a lot, too. As a chemist (synthesising cortisone and helping invent the Pill); an art collector (he assembled one of the world’s largest collections of works by Paul Klee); and an author (19 books and plays), he has accomplished more than enough for one lifetime.

His latest book, “Four Jews on Parnassus”, is an ima­gined series of debates between Theodor Adorno, Arnold Schönberg, Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem, which touches on art, music, philosophy and Jewish identity. In itself, the book is an exercise in polymathy. At a reading in the Austrian Cultural Forum in London this summer, complete with Schönberg’s songs and four actors, including Djerassi himself, it drew a good crowd and bewitched them for an hour and a half. Sitting down with the book the next day, I found it sharp, funny, mannered and dazzlingly erudite—sometimes, like a bumptious student, too erudite for its own good. I enjoy Djerassi’s writing, though not everyone will. But even his critics would admit that he really is more than “a scientist who writes”.

The word “polymath” teeters somewhere between Leo­nardo da Vinci and Stephen Fry. Embracing both one of history’s great intellects and a brainy actor, writer, director and TV personality, it is at once presumptuous and banal. Djerassi doesn’t want much to do with it. “Nowadays people that are called polymaths are dabblers—are dabblers in many different areas,” he says. “I aspire to be an intellectual polygamist. And I deliberately use that metaphor to provoke with its sexual allusion and to point out the real difference to me between polygamy and promiscuity."

“To me, promiscuity is a way of flitting around. Polygamy, serious polygamy, is where you have various marriages and each of them is important. And in the ideal polygamy I suspect there’s no number one wife and no number six wife. You have a deep connection with each person.”

Djerassi is right to be suspicious of flitting. We all know a gifted person who cannot stick at anything. In his book “Casanova: A Study in Self-Portraiture” Stefan Zweig describes an extreme case:

[Casanova] excelled in mathematics no less than in philosophy. He was a competent theologian, preaching his first sermon in a Venetian church when he was not yet 16 years old. As a violinist, he earned his daily bread for a whole year in the San Samuele theatre. When he was 18 he became doctor of laws at the University of Padua—though down to the present day the Casanovists are still disputing whether the degree was genuine or spurious...He was well informed in chemistry, medicine, history, philosophy, literature, and, above all, in the more lucrative (because perplexing) sciences of astrology and alchemy...As universal dilettante, indeed, he was perfect, knowing an incredible amount of all the arts and all the sciences; but he lacked one thing, and this lack made it impossible for him to become truly productive. He lacked will, resolution, patience.

Mindful of that sort of promiscuity, I asked my colleagues to suggest living polymaths of the polygamous sort—doers, not dabblers. One test I imposed was breadth. A scientist who composes operas and writes novels is more of a polymath than a novelist who can turn out a play or a painter who can sculpt. For Djerassi, influence is essential too. “It means that your polymath activities have passed a certain quality control that is exerted within each field by the competition. If they accept you at their level, then I think you have reached that state rather than just dabbling.” They mentioned a score of names—Djerassi was prominent among them. Others included Jared Diamond, Noam Chomsky, Umberto Eco, Brian Eno, Michael Frayn and Oliver Sacks.

It is an impressive list, by anyone’s standards. You can find scientists, writers, actors, artists—the whole range of human creativity. Even so, what struck me most strongly was how poorly today’s polymaths compare with the polymaths of the past.
The Last days of the Polymath

In the first half of 1802 a physician and scientist called Thomas Young gave a series of 50 lectures at London’s new Royal Institution, arranged into subjects like “Mechanics” and “Hydro­dynamics”. By the end, says Young’s biographer Andrew Robinson, he had pretty much laid out the sum of scientific knowledge. Robinson called his book “The Last Man Who Knew Everything”.

Young’s achievements are staggering. He smashed Newtonian orthodoxy by showing that light is a wave, not just a particle; he described how the eye can vary its focus; and he proposed the three-colour theory of vision. In materials science, engineers dealing with elasticity still talk about Young’s modulus; in linguistics, Young studied the grammar and voc­abulary of 400 or so languages and coined the term “Indo-European”; in Egyptology, Jean-François Champollion drew on his work to decode the Rosetta stone. Young even tinkered around with life insurance.

When Young was alive the world contained about a billion people. Few of them were literate and fewer still had the chance to experiment on the nature of light or to examine the Rosetta stone. Today the planet teems with 6.7 billion minds. Never have so many been taught to read and write and think, and then been free to choose what they would do with their lives. The electronic age has broken the shackles of knowledge. Never has it been easier to find something out, or to get someone to explain it to you.

Yet as human learning has flowered, the man or woman who does great things in many fields has become a rare species. Young was hardly Aristotle, but his capacity to do important work in such a range of fields startled his contemporaries and today seems quite bewildering. The dead cast a large shadow but, even allowing for that, the 21st century has no one to match Michelangelo, who was a poet as well as a sculptor, an architect and a painter. It has no Alexander von Humboldt, who towered over early-19th-century geography and science. And no Leibniz, who invented calculus at the same time as Newton and also wrote on technology, philosophy, biology, politics and just about everything else.

Although you may be able to think of a few living polymaths who rival the breadth of Young’s knowledge, not one of them beg­ins to rival the breadth of his achievements. Over the past 200 years the nature of intellectual endeavour has changed profoundly. The polymaths of old were one-brain universities. These days you count as a polymath if you excel at one thing and go on to write a decent book about another.

Young was just 29 when he gave his lectures at the Royal Institution. Back in the early 19th century you could grasp a field with a little reading and a ready wit. But the distinction between the dabbling and doing is more demanding these days, because breaking new ground is so much harder. There is so much further to trek through other researchers’ territory before you can find a patch of unploughed earth of your own.

Even the best scientists have to make that journey. Benjamin Jones, of the Kellogg School of Management near Chicago, looked at the careers of Nobel laureates. Slightly under half of them did their path-breaking work in their 30s, a smattering in their 20s—Einstein, at 26, was unusually precocious. Yet when the laureates of 1998 did their seminal research, they were typically six years older than the laureates of 1873 had been. It was the same with great inventors.

Once you have reached the vanguard, you have to work harder to stay there, especially in the sciences. So many scientists are publishing research in each specialism that merely to keep up with the reading is a full-time job. “The frontier of knowledge is getting longer,” says Professor Martin Rees, the president of the Royal Society, where Young was a leading light for over three decades. “It is impossible now for anyone to focus on more than one part at a time.”

Specialisation is hard on polymaths. Every moment devoted to one area is a moment less to give over to something else. Researchers are focused on narrower areas of work. In the sciences this means that you often need to put together a team to do anything useful. Most scientific papers have more than one author; papers in some disciplines have 20 or 30. Only a fool sets out to cure cancer, Rees says. You need to concentrate on some detail—while remembering the big question you are ultimately trying to answer. “These days”, he says, “no scientist makes a unique contribution.”

It is not only the explosion of knowledge that puts polymaths at a disadvantage, but also the vast increase in the number of specialists and experts in every field. This is because the learning that creates would-be polymaths creates monomaths too and in overwhelming numbers. If you have a multitude who give their lives to a specialism, their combined knowledge will drown out even a gifted generalist. And while the polymath tries to take possession of a second expertise in some distant discipline, his or her first expertise is being colonised by someone else.

The arts are more forgiving than the sciences. Rees is reminded of a remark by Peter Medawar, the zoologist, who pointed out that, after finishing a draft of “Siegfried” in 1857, Wagner was able to put the opera aside for 12 years before setting out to complete his Ring Cycle with “Götterdämmerung”. A scientist would have had to worry about a rival stealing his thunder. But nobody else was about to compose the destruction of Valhalla.

Perhaps that explains why would-be polymaths these days so often turn to writing books. Yet, as Richard Posner has discovered, even that is often enemy territory.

Unlike France, America and Britain don’t tend to encourage public intellectuals. But if they did, Richard Posner would be their standard-bearer. Posner’s day job is as an appeals-court judge in Chicago—a career founded upon his reputation as America’s pre-eminent thinker on anti-trust law. But Posner is not just a lawyer. In his spare time he has written on sex, security, politics, Hegel, Homeric society, medieval Iceland and a whole lot more. The Wall Street Journal once called him a “one-man think-tank”.

Posner thinks like a polymath. “I’m impatient and I’m restless,” he says, in a matter-of-fact way. “After I graduated from law school, I worked first in government for six years. I enjoyed it but I didn’t really want to make a career of that. I went into teaching without any great sense of commitment, but I couldn’t think of anything else. But gradually I lost int­erest, as the 1970s wore on, I became involved in consulting. So when the judgeship came along in 1981—quite out of the blue—I was happy to take that. I just kind of slid into law. It is sort of the default career choice in the United States.”

Posner first made his name as a monomath. “I had a very big intellectual commitment for many years to anti-trust law. I wrote a lot about that.” Eventually, though, the polymath rose to the surface and he put anti-trust behind him. “I just got bored with it, I think the field slowed down—it happens with fields,” he says. These days most people cling to their expertise; Posner talks about it as if he were trading in an old car.

After he became immersed in the intellectual life of the University of Chicago, Posner started to apply insights from economics to a broad range of subjects. In his book “Sex and Reason”, written in 1990, he used economics to explain a part of life that specialist lawyers and economists had tended to think was beyond their reach. To take a simple example, the AIDS epidemic made gay sex unavoidably more costly, either because of the risk of disease or of switching to safe sex. It therefore reduced the amount of gay sex—and, by the same mechanism, cut the number of illegitimate births and inc­reased the number of legitimate ones.

The book was a success because Posner had the field pretty much to himself. “Sometimes one goes into a new area and there hasn’t been much done in it and then you are a little ahead of the curve,” he says. Even then, the monomaths were in hot pursuit. “After a while there is so much in it that you don’t know what you’re going to do. Since 1990 the field has become extremely crowded because of specialisation and not very attractive.” Time to move on.

The monomaths do not only swarm over a specialism, they also play dirty. In each new area that Posner picks—policy or science—the experts start to erect barricades. “Even in relatively soft fields, specialists tend to develop a specialised vocabulary which creates barriers to entry,” Posner says with his economic hat pulled down over his head. “Specialists want to fend off the generalists. They may also want to convince themselves that what they are doing is really very difficult and challenging. One of the ways they do that is to develop what they regard a rigorous methodology—often mathematical.

“The specialist will always be able to nail the generalists by pointing out that they don’t use the vocabulary quite right and they make mistakes that an insider would never make. It’s a defence mechanism. They don’t like people invading their turf, especially outsiders criticising insiders. So if I make mistakes about this economic situation, it doesn’t really bother me tremendously. It’s not my field. I can make mistakes. On the other hand for me to be criticising someone whose whole career is committed to a particular outlook and method and so on, that is very painful.”

For a polymath, the charge of dabbling never lies far below the surface. “With the amount of information that’s around, if you really want to understand your topic thoroughly then, yes, you have to specialise,” says Chris Leek, the chairman of British Mensa, a club for people who score well on IQ tests. “And if you want to speak with authority, then it’s important to be seen to specialise.”

That is why modern institutions tend to exclude polymaths, he says. “It’s very hard to show yourself as a polymath in the current academic climate. If you’ve got someone interested in going across departments, spending part of the time in physics and part of the time elsewhere, their colleagues are going to kick them out. They’re not contributing fully to any single department. OK, every so often you’re going to get a huge benefit, but from day to day, where the universities are making appointments, they want the focus in one field.”

Britain goes out of its way to create monomaths, by asking students aged 15 to choose just three or four subjects to study at A-level. Djerassi thinks this is a mistake. “There’ll be students here at age 16 or 17 who are much better than many Americans at French or maths or something, but abysmally ignorant in another area,” he says. “We really preach intellectual monogamy more and more in this day and age. That’s by necessity, but we’re overdoing it. And what we really ought to do is start with intellectual polygamy.”

Djerassi has also suffered in his own work because of monomaths’ hostility, especially as a playwright. “They always keep crying out ‘the co-inventor, father, the mother of the Pill’,” he growls. “Without having any knowledge about the play, they start with it. As if it’s got anything to do with it.” Djerassi thinks that this means he has to work harder to promote his work. “No agent has ever been interested in me. They want 29-year-old Irish playwrights, not 86-year-old expatriates.” A trace of bitterness creeps into his voice, but he concedes: “If I were an agent I’d feel the same way.”

Overwhelmed by specialists and attacked by experts as dilettantes, it is amazing that there are any polymaths at all. How do they manage?

Alexander McCall Smith is a natural writer. “I just have to do it,” he says. “I suppose I write four novels a year now, which I don’t have to do. In one sense, that is breaking all the rules in publishing: you’re only meant to write one, but I write four, sometimes five. But I just feel that I have got to do it and I enjoy it greatly. I suppose I am very fortunate. The way I work is I go into a trance and write. I don’t have to sit there and think: it happens. It just comes, so I am very, very lucky.”

These days McCall Smith is best-known as the man behind “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency”. But his first career, as a university professor, was eminent in its own right. “My interest was medical law. That, I suppose, was cross-disciplinary. You had to be able to understand the scientific issues and the medical issues, but you just had to have a sound lay understanding of them. So, for example, I worked as a member of the Human Genetics Commission for a while. And that meant I had to go off and make sure that I understood what the issues in genetics were.”

He is also musical—though in a dabbling way. “I play wind instruments, but I don’t play them very well,” he says. “My wife and I set up an orchestra, which is called the Really Terrible Orchestra, and indeed that is absolutely accurate. Virtually everybody I know is better at music than I am.”

McCall Smith is a polymath by necessity. He wrote while he was an academic, producing fiction, about 30 children’s books, short stories and plays for radio. He paid a price. “I probably would have made more of my academic career had I not had another interest, I think, yes. Academia requires a lot of commitment, so I suppose I could have done more.” But, speaking to him, I don’t think he had a choice.

Circumstance also played its part. McCall Smith was able to write because university life allowed it. “It would have been different had I been somebody who practised commercial law in a law firm, for instance. That wouldn’t be compatible with doing anything else. If you were a futures trader or something like that—there are some jobs where the pressure is so intense that it must be very difficult to have any energy by the time you come home at night.”

Posner could become a polymath because he has a unifying set of ideas. “A lot of this work is economic theory in new areas. So applying a method to a new field is not the same thing as mastering multiple fields. To achieve mastery in unrelated areas in an age of specialisation is exceedingly difficult. On the other hand, to take a technique that can be applied to a variety of substantive fields is not as difficult. So if I write about the economics of old age and the economics of sex and the economics of the national security and intelligence services, I am not mastering the field. I am not becoming a sociologist, or a psychiatrist or what have you.”

The last days of the polymath 2Djerassi could become a polymath because he has had two careers, one after the other—he did his science and, having made a fortune, he concentrated on his writing. He was helped by his wife. “She was a very sophisticated writer and an extremely tough critic and she managed to divorce affection from criticism. She thought ‘this is terrible’ or ‘this is clichéd’.” He also has ambition and the willpower of someone on borrowed time. At 62 he was diagnosed with cancer. “Suddenly, from one day to another, I didn’t even know what my life expectancy would be before I got the pathology back after the operation. And I remember being very depressed and afterwards I didn’t want to talk to anyone.” He said to himself, “‘Gee, now if I’d known five years earlier it would come out that I’d have cancer and be told I’d live for another few years, would I live a different life?’ And I said, ‘Absolutely’.”

Not all polymaths find their way. Andrew Robinson, Young’s biographer, gives the example of Michael Ventris, who died aged 34, having tried to satisfy both his urge to be an architect and also his fascination with codes. Ventris was the first to make sense of Linear B, an early Greek script, but he could not apply himself as successfully to architecture.

“With Michael Ventris, the polymathy gradually des­troyed him,” Robinson says. “He was famous for cracking Linear B, but I believe he was depressed. Architecture was not enough. He was a logician. Linear B took him over. He couldn’t reach the standard he had set in another field, he couldn’t do justice to his own gifts, he couldn’t let it all go and give it up.”

Robinson thinks that Young also ran up against his limits. “Young understood after 1814 that he couldn’t carry on with serious medicine. He could have pursued it but even then it was clear that he wouldn’t be taken seriously. People love a sole genius with tunnel vision—a focus,” Robinson says. Darwin spent several years thinking about barnacles. But because Young’s work was in so many different fields, he was accused of being a dilettante. “Polymaths are disconcerting,” Robinson says. “People feel they are trespassing.”

Even Leonardo warned against being spread thin. The other day Robinson came across one of his late notebooks, in which he had written, “Like a kingdom divided, which rushes to its doom, the mind that engages in subjects of too great variety becomes confused and weakened.”

In an age of specialists, does it matter that generalists no longer thrive? The world is hardly short of knowledge. Countless books are written, canvases painted and songs recorded. A torrent of research is pouring out. A new orthodoxy, popularised by Malcolm Gladwell, sees obsessive focus as the key that unlocks genius.

Just knowing about a lot of things has never been easier. Never before have dabblers been so free to paddle along the shore and dip into the first rock pool that catches the eye. If you have an urge to take off your shoes and test the water, countless specialists are ready to hold your hand.

And yet you will never get very deep. Depth is for monomaths—which is why experts so often seem to miss what really matters. Specialisation has made the study of English so sterile that students lose much of the joy in reading great literature for its own sake. A generation of mathematically inclined economists neglected many of Keynes’s insights about the Depression because he put them into words. For decades economists sweated over fiendish mathematical equations, only to be brought down to earth by the credit crunch: Keynes’s well-turned phrases had come back to life.

Part of my regret at the scarcity of polymaths is sentimental. Polymaths were the product of a particular time, when great learning was a mark of distinction and few people had money and leisure. Their moment has passed, like great houses or the horse-drawn carriage. The world may well be a better place for the specialisation that has come along instead. The pity is that progress has to come at a price. Civilisation has put up fences that people can no longer leap across; a certain type of mind is worth less. The choices modern life imposes are duller, more cramped.

The question is whether their loss has affected the course of human thought. Polymaths possess something that monomaths do not. Time and again, innovations come from a fresh eye or from another discipline. Most scientists devote their careers to solving the everyday problems in their specialism. Everyone knows what they are and it takes ingenuity and perseverance to crack them. But breakthroughs—the sort of idea that opens up whole sets of new problems—often come from other fields. The work in the early 20th century that showed how nerves work and, later, how DNA is structured originally came from a marriage of physics and biology. Today, Einstein’s old employer, the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, is laid out especially so that different disciplines rub shoulders. I suspect that it is a poor substitute.

Isaiah Berlin once divided thinkers into two types. Foxes, he wrote, know many things; whereas hedgehogs know one big thing. The foxes used to roam free across the hills. Today the hedgehogs rule.



Interesting. One hazard of monomathism is the inability to see the forest for the trees. Polymaths like Posner or Jared Diamond do us all a service by bringing the perspective of a different discipline (economics and biology, respectively) to another. As the world becomes more specialized, we need more anti-specialists.

This article sounded so

This article sounded so interesting. But it was riddled with flimsy reasoning and unsupported assertions.
For example, it states that "polymaths possess something that monomaths do not," alludes to scientific breakthroughs, and concludes: "Today, Einstein’s old employer, the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, is laid out especially so that different disciplines rub shoulders. I suspect that it is a poor substitute."
Not a poor substitute for Einstein himself, presumably, since he hardly fit the definition of 'polymath' advanced here. The man's social and political insights were as dim as his scientific contributions were brilliant.
Then there was the glaringly retrograde, Eurocentric frame of reference. Hardly bolstered the writer's case that, in an ostensible paean to breadth and variety, his supporting evidence was a claustrophobic stable of old white guys.
Also - speaking of old white guys - one had to wonder if the writer has actually read much of Posner's writing. (Since he treats the latter's alleged brilliance as a fait accompli, I'm guessing not.)


The article is very interesting and an enjoyable read; but the writer seems determined to argue the need for Polymaths when the bulk of his article leads to the conclusion that such a tendency is unlikely to reach beyond 'dabbling' in the modern world.

Perhaps the writer should have paused before dismissing 'rubbing shoulders' as a "poor substitute", maybe collaboration (teamwork) amongst Monomaths from dfferent disciplines leads to inovation and breakthroughs equal to those of the great Polymaths of the past.

If nothing else, my own dabbling reveals that even Einstein benefited greatly from tution he received from Monomaths. Or put another way, you can't have impatient and creative Polymaths without the resolute Monomaths.


The need for polymaths remains in many aspects of human society. For example, in mediation, in extended families, and then again in any village or city context, within large organizations.

The rise of messaging technology, Internet included, and the current popularity of the social entrepreneur - operating with the romance of the cowboy or lone explorer - tends to obscure the need for those who integrate.

This ability to integrate across fields of knowledge is akin to what happens when the brain oscillates within and across various lobes to create complex images and thoughts. Perhaps, it should be considered a higher function as it mixes not only data but also emotional components.

Finally, recent studies have shown that a diversity of outlooks and life experience produce better outcomes and solutions than panels of experts. Perhaps this is the outcome of the Western science modality that drives towards objectivity. The age old question - can the observer ever be objective about his own behavior?

Do we need to encourage and nurture the polymath? Losing him may be our demise.

Lets never forget the overall picture

The essay is an intellectual pleasure, but are we looking at the overall picture? What is important in a world dreaded with recession, poverty, dictatorships, pseudo-democracy, hatred and wars, nuclear arms race and global warming? A few hundreds of us may be polymaths and make new inventions and discoveries. Today the inventions are more powerful than ever before. But who benefit from these inventions? A few millionaires? Or the powerful? New inventions always tend to increase the gap in the "connected" world. I am not sure this is the right way to go.

Mind you, I am not saying we don't need inventors. We need inventors not only to solve world's problems but create new opportunities. More radically, we need new ways of thinking. Remove all assumptions and biases.

Then probably we will realize that we need democracy for all (not just the majority or the wall-street-powerful). We need water, food and electricity for everyone. We need peace.

We also need an answer to how much of the humanity does the new invention benefit? Until we live in a world where everybody has an equal opportunity, new inventions will only be an arsenal for the powerful. As a developer, I find open-source movement as an example of how contributions can be made available to all.

Today there is a new opportunity to be a polymath: along with being scientists, engineers, artists and writers, we can be a citizen for peace, or for equality, or for democracy. Einstein worked for peace, even if you say he cannot be called an expert.

The last days of the polymath

The decline of the polymath, and increasing academic specialisation, is to be regretted, as it bodes ill for society. The challenges of the modern world, whether it is the search for a new malaria cure or combating religious intolerance, demand a broad liberal education and a convergence of disciplines. In "The Human Situation", Aldous Huxley decries what he calls 'the celibacy of the intellect,' and seeks to bridge the gap between the humanities and the sciences through 'integrated education.' But while scientists, in general, have tried to make excursions into the humanities, few literary men (and women) have reciprocated the gesture, the main stumbling block, according to some, being mathematics. A few months ago I was reading the views of some literary persons about Stephen Hawking's "A Brief History of Time". In spite of the fact that this book is largely devoid of abstruse mathematics, several of the persons said they put the book aside by the end of chapter one!

In my own country, Nigeria, where, in higher education, the government has been systematically pushing the humanities to the background in favour of science and technology (universities and colleges are to base their admissions on a 60:40 ratio in favour of the sciences), specialisation has done a great deal of harm. 'Educated' men and women are in a straitjacket. One consequence of this is that professors of physics and biology, blinded by the 'truths' of the Bible and lacking critical insights from philosophy, literature and history, often stand in the pulpit on Sundays to feed their credulous congregations with the absurd notion that the world was created in six days in 5005 BC. Another result of narrow specialism, according Nigeria's foremost novelist, Chinua Achebe, is that academic discourse in the universities is often carried on at 'an almost illiterate level.'

It doesn't seem entirely unrealistic to hope that there might, someday, once again be a resurgence of the polymath. What is needed is a new orientation in our education systems, in our value systems - particularly in the appreciation of disinterested knowledge that is not subject to rigid rules of demand and supply.

young and light waves

Hate to be nit-picky, but this is wrong:

"Young’s achievements are staggering. He smashed Newtonian orthodoxy by showing that light is a wave, not just a particle..."

Young thought he showed conclusively that light is a wave, period. At the time, nobody in the world thought light could be both a wave and a particle - that particular discovery happened a hundred and twenty five years after Young.

flimsy reasoning, retrograde frame

Thank you for being a voice of reason on this article. I found it exactly as you put it, and also sadly, pretending to be somehow a fresh perspective but still retaining the same cranky curmudgeonly view of "the good old days."

I really have to add, why would there be fewer polymaths in an age when so much more opportunity to BE a polymath is available to so many more people in the world? Statistically, it simply doesn't make sense.

The fact that this article

The fact that this article ignores some of the most vibrant writing around says a lot. South Asian writers have been well-rounded, partly due to their education and the fact writing had until recently rarely been a full-time profession. Vikram Seth and Manil Suri are mathematicians, Amitav Ghosh an anthropologist, and so on.

Fox and hedgehog

"Isaiah Berlin once divided thinkers into two types. Foxes, he wrote, know many things; whereas hedgehogs know one big thing. The foxes used to roam free across the hills. Today the hedgehogs rule."

Berlin did not originate this trope: he was quoting Archilochus.

Sounds like the autor is a

Sounds like the autor is a polymath.

Still I prefer foxes.

And Goethe?

Carr should also have talked a bit about Woflgang von Goethe, who, for me, was a true polymath.

Last days of the polymath.

The obituary of polymathy may not be written for quite some time yet.
Great minds will continue to play their role as a monomath or a polymath depending on their circumstances and temperament.
Expolsion of human knowledge does make polymathy more difficult. It has more work to do. Our nobel laureates take longer to secure nobelity. May be our polymaths will do so too. But then both humanity and the polymaths both can afford it. We are all living longer.
As to the main point of the article on the relative importance of the two 'maths, I am inclined to think that monomathy and polymathy are rather complementary. Monmaths will continue to need polymaths to mediate and cross-fertilize them.

Polymathy, a romantic idea i love

Very interesting article. I am not able to call into question the soundness of the scientific references used but subscribe to the idea that monomathism can fail to see the big picture, unable to get passed the details. Polymathy makes sense, the world is interconnected why look at it through a specialist eyes only? Good academic exercise perhaps but i think its safe to say that most achievements were not made that way. Big achievements need fresh big vision that monomaths usually lack!


A brilliant comment overall. Except that you seem to know a knowledge system which demands greater degree of objectivity from observers than 'western scicence',yet did not identify it.

Birth of the western polymath

An interesting and thought provoking article but the abscence of an entire section and indeed tradition of polymaths brings this article down somewhat. It is hard to believe that an article on the topic of the polymath and how it may be relevant in today's society would not mention possibly the most influential and certainly the earliest of the post Hellenic Western polymaths - those of the early Islamic empires, notably of Al Andalus who took on the mantle of the Islamic tradition of the 'hakeem', predating Young and his contemporaries by some 1000 years. There are far too many to mention here in my critique but even a small reference in th article would have stemmed my belief that all too often the influence of Islamic culture, thinking and science on the west is edited out of contemporary western history and popular culture.

Where are the women?

Are there really no female polymaths or were they just forgotten?

As for content criticism,

As for content criticism, feel free to write your own article if you're aggrieved at not being sufficiently represented. By all means let's worry about parity rather than the larger message within the article.

I find it curious that the early Islamic empires are mentioned without noting that contributions from that segment of the world population have been notably absent in the modern age. Surely that has some relevance to the decline of polymaths or intellectual endeavors in general. I suppose, as with the article, there were space limitations.

Monetizing polymathy

I think journalists end up knowing a little about a lot of things, creating a knowledge landscape a mile wide and an inch thick. The problem with polymathy is that it doesn't pay well in the United States -- you need to do one thing well, and maybe one other thing counts as a hobby, like Bill Gates playing bridge or Zero Mostel painting. Was Isaac Asimov a polymath?


Where is Benjamin Franklin?

Re: Where are the women?

There are indeed female polymaths, even from times when culture stigmatized the female intellectual: Hypatia of Alexandria, Hildegard of Bingen, and Mary Somerville come to mind in particular.

The key word here is "stigmatized": all of these women were bucking the trend and defying society's expectations. The relative dearth of female polymaths historically is a reflection of the same social force that is killing polymaths off, male and female, today.

It's easier than you make it out to be.

The thrust of the argument against polymathy is the time commitment required to gain expertise in one field. "If learning one discipline is difficult and takes time, learning two must be twice as difficult and take twice as much time!" This argument itself is a reflection of a specialist's viewpoint, as it ignores the significant overlaps and connections often existing between ideas from seemingly diverse disciplines. For instance, the rules for constructing harmonic cadences also work well as bases for constructing stochastic analysis tools such as Markov chains. Machine learning tools can extract information and even diagnoses from medical tests automatically. Even mathematical functions visualized in the proper way can produce art. Know only one discipline and you'd miss these types of connections. Come to a discipline with an existing knowledge base and you will likely learn it faster: relating new concepts to known ideas is an extremely successful pedagogical technique.

The explosion of knowledge that has taken place in the 20th century is not the root cause of the hyperspecialization we see today: the attitude of our society - and particularly our educational institutions - towards polymathy is. Our educational system has been reduced to a form of vocational training, but there is more to the concept of "education": what of learning, creation, and discovery?

That isn't to say polymaths lack vocation: analyze the lives of historical polymaths - da Vinci, Jefferson, Franklin, Young, Hooke - and you'll immediately identify "career" competencies for which they are known... but they were that and so much more; they did not trade off disciplinary knowledge against breadth.

With others, I am involved with an effort to create a school for polymaths. It isn't going to be easy - we're up against a highly entrenched status quo - but challenges at the frontiers of knowledge are becoming increasingly interdisciplinary in nature, and we can no longer afford to approach them from a strictly monomathic perspective if we hope to succeed in solving them.

Polymaths will survive

The apparent demise of the traditional description of a polymath in the modern era may well be a reflection of how we view the expanding boundaries of human knowledge. But perhaps it represents an opportunity to consider what a modern day polymath might look like. While the internet provides the tools for us all to become generalists, picking up as it were titbits of information to add our personal patchwork of knowledge, a modern polymath must be seen as one whose contributions expand or remould boundaries of knowledge.

In that vain I found Richard Posner’s view, quoted in Edward Carr’s article, that ‘…applying a method to a new field is not the same things as mastering multiple fields’ unduly pessimistic. Difficult it may be to achieve mastery in seeming unrelated areas but not impossible as the rapidly developing areas of nanoscience and nanotechnology are demonstrating. Both multi- and interdisciplinary research are opening up new avenues of understanding where physics, chemistry, engineering and medicine are not only converging, they are breaking down traditional discipline boundaries and are reshaping our of view of world on the nanoscale. Perhaps it is this reshaping role that will be salvation of the polymath.

Incidentally I would add Jonathan Miller to the list of living polymaths.

Polymaths Faux and Genuine

Posner is something of a poseur. He writes a lot but much of it is just shoot-from-the-hip pontification, not carefully reasoned and often infected by unexamined or unexplained economic biases. Moreover, in my experience as a lawyer, his judging suffers (due either to the same tendency to shoot from the hip or to the sheer time pressure of promiscuous publishing): his opinions are often arbitrary, shoddy and without recognition of relevant legal principles and precedent. For a true University of Chicago polymath, try the books or collected papers of Richard McKeon, the late Dean of Humanities there. A classicist and philosopher as well as rapporteur for UNESCO, he was extraordinarily knowledgeable in an astounding area of subject matters, and wrote comprehensively (if in a difficult fashion) about how subject matters, principles, and methods could be interrelated for deeper understanding.

Where are the women?

I am stunned that no women were included in the list of Living Polymaths.
I'd be interested to know which living women other readers would have nominated for the list?

A few hundred polymaths?

Millions at the very least. I know several of them, all decidedly un-famous, plus being one myself (computer programming, linguistics, history, and other things). Polymaths are everywhere, unnoticed, doing the monomath thing to make a living, keeping the rest of their knowledge for their evenings and weekends. Consider the plumber with the encyclopedic knowledge of baseball statistics. Consider my mother, who expertly tended babies (including me), cooked well (though she was no chef), taught German and German literature (and when that dried up as a line of work, taught English as a second language), ran a household full of contentious introverts, saved people's lives while swimming.

In defense of generalists and polymaths

I posted a defense of generalists and polymaths on my self-education website, Wide Awake Minds, earlier today:


The sidebar of Wide Awake Minds (http://www.wideawakeminds.com) also includes a list of links to biographies of "Self-educators, polymaths, and lovers of learning." Feel free to check it out if you are interested.

In defense of generalists and polymaths

I posted a defense of generalists and polymaths on my self-education website, Wide Awake Minds, earlier today:


The sidebar of Wide Awake Minds (http://www.wideawakeminds.com) also includes a list of links to biographies of "Self-educators, polymaths, and lovers of learning." Feel free to check it out if you are interested.

I enjoyed this article very much, and I am surprised that more is not being written about this issue.

Beware the no-maths

This could have been a really interesting article but unfortunately seems Carr himself too much taken in by the standard belief that the complexities of the modern knowledge society can only be mastered by monomaths. His interest in polymaths is clearly a purely sentimental, based on the glorification of the great geniuses of the past, which are now sadly lost forever due to the high level of detailed knowledge in all areas. Knowledge allegedly only accessible to monomaths spending their life focussing on increasingly smaller details.

What the Anglo-Saxon culture seems to be sadly lacking here is the concept best captured by the German word “Fachidiot” which loosely translates as monomathic idiot and captures an understanding of the inherent frailty of knowledge gained by too much focus. Someone who knows a lot about very little still knows very little when it comes to applying his knowledge to the world. As useful as monomaths are in their stubborn boredom resistant insistence of understanding things very well in every detail, the facts they unearth would remain useless if they were not integrated into a bigger picture. Imagine a huge hall full of people each of them knows exactly one sentence of Darwins collected works, would such a collection of monomaths constitute knowledge of the theory of evolution? In practice these people would probably spend their life trying to find the order in which their sentences should be read. If one would be interested in the text one might as well give the job of spelling it out to a roomful of monkeys with typewriters. A text is more that a list of words and knowledge is more than a list of facts from different disciplines, even if popular books like “50 facts you really need to know about cabbalistic thermodynamics” seem to suggest otherwise.

Obviously this is all nonsense: everybody knows that it does not work like that. But why then do we pretend it does. Why don’t we see that we are actually all some sort of polymaths because that is what the complexity of modern life really requires. Nobody can afford to know just one little bit of the world very well. Being a baker is not enough, you need to be able to use a computer and know math to do your taxes, and you need to drive a car and know how to read and and and.
We all are polymaths and we have to be, the weird thing is not that there aren’t any polymaths anymore, but that we have this strange cult of the monomath, which makes us believe that only monomaths could really gain a deep understanding of the world.
The problem with this belief is not that it gives undue kudos to the poor monomath, but that it spreads a completely nonsensical idea about knowledge and education and what it is all about. If the goal of education is seen to be the finding and fostering of rare specialist talents then the whole project becomes pointless for 99.9% of the population. No wonder that people lose interest, no wonder the sciences find it harder and harder to attract students: who would want to be the idiot who spends the rest of his life focusing on the wily ways of a handful of exotic polymeres. Can you imagine how eager bright young kids were to learn if the prospect wouldn’t be to end up as nerdy Billy no-mates, but instead would look forward to a future as evil masterminds who know everything about everything and have thus the whole world at their feet.
How did that happen that people forgot about “knowledge is power”? I guess they have because according to today’s theory of knowledge it simply isn’t. Knowing things makes you weird not powerful. As a result we interestingly seem to be fostering an even more worrying phenomenon than the monomath, which is the no-math, i.e. people who know nothing about anything but due to ample ambitions and their ability to take decisions without being hampered by any knowledge of the matter, run everything. Usually they are known as managers (sometimes also as politicians). The sad thing is that with his sentimental ideas about the great gone polymaths Carr might be helping them with their anti-educational conspiracy rather than encouraging people to start learning and to discover that with every bit of real knowledge the world opens up rather than closes down on you.

Expand the definition too much

I feel that the true polymath is a very rare thing today. In opinion, a Renaissance man is not just a lawyer who can speak 10 languages but, rather, is someone knows a lot about and contributes to highly sophisticated fields. He would be someone like a veterinarian who paints or sculpts and is also a geologist and philosopher. Yet, I also think that a problem with today's society is that we focus too much on labels. We love to fit everyone and everything into neat little categories.

Showing 6 comments

  • grvaughan, Aerospace engineer
    As a generalist myself, I'm very much an advocate for the value of generalists who can tie together ideas and opportunities from various siloed specialized disciplines.

    So many times, the same ideas can be applied in different fields in analogous ways. Or, we may find the key to unlocking a problem has already been discovered in another area of specialization. Interdisciplinary research has consequently become the norm rather than the exception.

    From a career standpoint, the article points out many of the difficulties for generalists in today's highly-specialized world. One potential workaround is the notion of the 'T-shaped' individual, a generalist with a breadth of knowledge but also an area of specialization where they have studied in-depth.

    I think this is a viable strategy for generalists who seek to develop professional credibility while working as a connector between different fields of knowledge.

  • mlkj100
    All the comments here are pretty accurate. But I appreciate the balls it took to write an article like this. Thanks for the inspiration!

  • Let's not forget that these men lived in an age where less qualification was needed to become a professional. Not only do you need a degree to be considered seriously in almost any given field today, but you need also usually need at least a masters and it costs more than ever. There are plenty of people who know a lot about a lot, they just don't have the papers they need to be taken seriously, and in the end it's probably a good thing because even in the old days where many people knew a lot about a lot, there were even more people who merely THOUGHT that they knew a lot about a lot. But this doesn't mean we shouldn't take advantage of our tremendous resources of information!