The last days of polymath

Categories: SciTech
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Published on: September 29, 2009

Monomath vs polymaths, specialist vs generalist, depth vs breadth in scientific knowledge. As many you might have noticed the degree of specialization required in many technical fields is very high. There is a high barrier to entry in most fields, requiring years of dedicated & focused work to make any meaningful contribution (no matter how small). An interesting article discusses these issues.

The question is whether their [polymaths] 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.

More about this here: [The Link]

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