The Royal College of Surgeons, in contrast was disappointing
although it was reassuring to see that my car was waiting for me outside to whisk me off just as soon as it had finished (ha!).
Anyway, enough of the setting. Down to the meat of the debate. The panel comprised of Oliver Morton, Andrew Robinson (specialising in Thomas Young), John Whitfield (specialising in D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson) and the chair Gill Sam (apologies if that name is wrong) - who introduced Oliver Morton as the author of 'Wapping Wars' (in fact he had written 'Mapping Mars' - which amused everyone when he indignantly pointed this out).
The following points were made although these are not in the order they were discussed.
Defining the polymath
According to Oliver Morton this was someone who makes a contribution to four distinct areas of knowledge at a professional level. Whereas John Whitfiield thought a contribution to more than one field was sufficient. Andrew Robinson thought they should have knowledge over a broad range of fields.
Someone from the floor asked if non-arts subjects should be included and the general conclusion was that they should in which case HG Wells, Bertrand Russell, Arthur C Clarke, Jonathan Miller, Melvyn Bragg, James Joyce and Winston Churchill should be included as polymaths.
The Genius of the Polymath - making transitions between disciplines
Polymaths tend to be interested in applying what they know from one field into another. For instance knowledge of fluid mechanics can lead to new ideas on circulation and the heart; and chemical notation could be applied to decoding the Rosetta stone.
Andrew Robinson pointed out that Thomas Young applied linguistics to maths and biology but stuck with just those fields and it is rare to find polymaths in many different fields.
John Whitfield pointed out that D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson had gone from physics to biology (Frances Crick made a similar transition) and was able to apply laws in physics to biological systems. Laws that govern particles in a gas, for instance, can be applied to populations of animals. Some subjects do certainly blend together well; (maths and music is another. It is as though we use the same parts of our brain even though they do not seem to be obviously connected).
The Era of the Polymath
Before the twentieth century there was a more romantic view of science. Scientists were self-financed men of leisure who could afford to play at what they wished and thereby made discoveries. However in the twenty-first century scientists have to specialise and work in institutions. This means there is less opportunity to be a polymath because it is now very difficult for individuals to acquire the intellectual and physical skills they need to excel in many domains.
For instance it was pointed out that only about four people in the world can understand all the papers in the back of the journal Nature because the language and expertise has become so specialised. It is also much more difficult to make great contributions in both sciences and the arts than it was in say, Leonardo daVinci's day.
(It was here, dear reader (if you exist) that I asked MY QUESTION (a big moment - very daring). I have noticed from my reading that quite often it is by taking ideas from one domain into another that big changes in paradigms seem to occur. Quite often it is the people who come from outside the discipline (ie the polymaths) and look at things in a different way who question and cause revolutions in science. I wondered if we might be losing this potential if scientists are forced to specialise and are no longer able to broaden their knowledge of different fields. Perhaps I didn't ask my question very well because Oliver Morton said he didn't agree with my premise and did not agree that my example (Alfred Wegener of course) was a polymath either - but I remain convinced that he was...explorer, cartographer, meteorologist, glaciologist, cosmologist, geologist...but I'm not very good at arguing).
Science and Institutions.
Because of the expansion of knowledge it is very difficult for a single person to have great knowledge in many different fields. Instead we have teams of different people with different expertise. This means that science these days is not about individuals but about teams of people. The most fertile areas are at the interfaces and it is by argument and discussion that science progresses.
Science, Polymaths and Progress
Some members of the floor thought that science had been less productive in the last ten years because of the death of the polymath. However this was not blamed on the arrival of the institute but the stifling effect of too much health and safety. Scientists can no longer explore different fields and cannot take physical risks and scientific progress suffers because of this. Another person from the floor blamed changes in social values -- in particular the death of societies and clubs and the loss of a valuable opportunity to share ideas.
And with that I had to creep out and dash up Southampton Row to catch the last train for Chester - which was a bit of a shame because I'd have loved to stay until the end. But it was a very interesting debate and I was glad I went - and intend to do the same thing again sometime.