Mon 28 September 2009 | -- (permalink)

The Economist puts out a quarterly lifestyle magazine called Intelligent Life. The latest has a thoughtful article on polymaths, people who excel in multiple, distinct areas of achievement.

I had never heard of Thomas Young before reading the article, but I probably should have, judging by the list of his accomplishments:

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.

Economist, author, and Seventh Circuit judge Richard Posner features prominently in the article. In these two paragraphs he nails one of the greatest problems with academia today:

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.”

This closing passage struck home to me:

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.

Thanks to Marginal Revolution for pointing me to the article.