Monday, May 28, 2007

Whatever Happened to the Polymaths: A Royal Institution Lecture.

For over a week now I have been promising myself that I shall write a short account of the debate on 'Whatever happened to the Polymaths' at the Royal Institution. The Royal Institution has a building of its own but this is undergoing refurbishment so the lecture took place at the Royal College of Surgeons in Lincoln's Inn Fields. I'd not been there before and it is a rather impressive-looking place arranged around a square of garden (as many places in north central London are) but here. on each side, were a rather impressive range of buildings...

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.


Blogger Lee said...

Clare, there are some very interesting chapters in Lee Smolin's The Trouble with Physics which concern the way physics, and science in general, are done in the modern world. One chapter in particular, Seers and Craftspeople, discusses a list of 'wild guys' who, though not necessarily polymaths, have not worked on what is fashionable. Smolin seems to feel it was their independence which gave them the opportunity to do really original work. He quotes Einstein in this regard:
'So many people today - and even professional scientists - seem to me like someone who has seen thousands of trees but has never seen a forest. A knowledge of the historical and philosophical background gives that kind of independence from prejudices of his generation from which most scientists are suffering. This independence created by philosophical insight is - in my opinion -the mark of distinction between a mere artisan or specialist and a real seeker after truth.'

Of course, Einstein is talking about history/philosophy, but I think this probably applies more broadly. And Smolin primarily discusses independence from the institutions of science, rather than independence of mind, but draws a clear relationship.

BTW, I believe it works in both directions: those from other fields need input from science too.

Tue May 29, 07:19:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Like the car!
I suspect Oliver did not indeed hear your question properly, or maybe he doesn't know as much about Wegener as you do -- from your book he certainly seems to me like a polymath.

However, I am not so sure about this idea of fields developing when someone from outside contributes. I see plenty of examples where people outside a field just don't "get" it, or are asking an obvious question that people in the field have already asked, and/or the person outside the field is not aware of lines of endeavour.

In my own old field, muscle contraction, this was always happening. People came along and said muscles contract due to osmotic forces, or stepwise sarcomere shortening, or like teeth on a comb when you twang them, or via thin filaments rotating, or other. Quite often, these people ignored or did not know about bodies of work that excluded the hypothesis.

So I think you are sometimes right, Clare -- sometimes, a very clever person from outside a discipline can provide insight that hasn't occurred to anyone else. But I suspect that those people are the tip of an iceberg, and that most of the time such an insight does not ensue. Maybe that is what Oliver was meaning, I don't know as I wasn't there.

There is also the "natural conservative" effect that applies to anything, in a field or outside it, which is to do with a reluctance to accept, or see, new ideas. Although this effect is not limited to polymathy (but occurs within a discipline also), it is another general problem in terms of making a contribution to a field other than one's own and getting that contribution taken seriously as a proposition.

Bottom line, it is hard to generalise. "Science" covers so many fields and type of intellectual endeavour, as well, it isn't homogeneous.

The nearest person to a polymath I have ever known reasonably well is John Maddox -- his talent was to be able to read the papers in Nature or Physical Review Letters or anywhere, and to "see the next question". I have lost count of the times that John asked someone in a field a question in a way that had not occurred to them (and these people were leading thinkers). Maybe that is the modern definition of a polymath -- someone who knows what questions to ask, rather than someone who knows the answers -- as sceince is now so technically specialised?

Nice post, Clare.

Tue May 29, 03:22:00 pm  
Blogger Lee said...

I was hoping Maxine would add her views, since she is both scientist herself and constantly exposed to scientists' work, and she's made some really excellent points - natural conservatism, which is related to Smolin's independence, but particularly about asking questions. I also wonder whether a polymath might have a different effect on smaller - and by this I don't mean unimportant - technical contributions as compared to real paradigm shifts. Just a question -though I'm certainly no polymath!

Tue May 29, 04:33:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This makes me think about Aaron Einbond, who graduated with music and physics degrees, and who told me that at Berkeley there are a good many advanced degree candidates who combine the two disciplines.

Great pictures. I dimly remember walking around there, years ago--nothing but stone and railings left in the mental storage, though.

Tue May 29, 04:53:00 pm  
Blogger Lee said...

A further point...

I suppose the question which really interests me is what makes for a creative thinker, and in which way is this related to polymathy. And further, are we perhaps putting the cart before the horse, so to speak - in other words, is it the person who thinks creatively in the first place who goes on to become a polymath?

Tue May 29, 04:58:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Many thinks for such excellent comments. I am going to have to think about these and shall be back here soon.

Tue May 29, 09:59:00 pm  
Blogger Lee said...

I really must learn to proof my comments! I meant '... in other words, is it the person who thinks creatively in the first place the one who goes on to become a polymath?'

Wed May 30, 06:25:00 am  
Blogger Catherine said...

I think your question was excellent. Of course it is true that the person outside the field may raise questions which have already been well-covered. Neither the insiders nor the outsiders make new discoveries every day, but I think that the experts in a field tend to make the small incremental discoveries, while the big leaps need a fundamentally different viewpoint. Lee's point about the creative thinkers becoming the polymaths is a good one, too.

Wed May 30, 07:25:00 am  
Blogger Gordon McCabe said...

Very interesting post Clare.

Sat Jun 02, 11:19:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have decided that in order to answer the points here I need to do some more research. At the moment I can only say what I believe - and that is there are two ways that science advances - there are the large leaps which need loose thinkers making the wild connections (for which being a polymath is helpful) and there are the equally important but smaller leaps (jumps perhaps) within a paradigm which require specialised and detailed knowledge and for which 'polymathism' is not so essential but still desirable. I believe that all great creative thinkers read widely and have a broad knowledge base so that in a way they are all polymaths - but of course it depends on the definition.

Sat Jun 02, 11:38:00 pm  

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