Episode Information

CMS: Twilight of the Polymath
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In this episode:

Specialization is turning polymaths -- people who know a lot -- into a dying breed


Episode Audio

49:30 minutes (23.77 MB)
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My father was enamored of the Renaissance Man and wanted me to be one.

You know how it is, when you father uses one particular phrase, over and over for decades, so that you know it's coming -- here it comes -- he's gonna say Renaissance Man!

He took me to Annapolis so I could see St. John's College, the last bastion of the broad-based education. I didn't get it. But I knew that if I got into Yale, everybody would get off my back, possibly forever. So I did.  At Yale, I was assigned a faculty advisor, a European Jew who taught math. He was a dignified man and when we met, he would shake his head over my reluctance to pursue math or the sciences. He would sigh at the choices I made to get around the requirements. When he died and his obit ran in the Times, I realized Abraham Robinson was one of the most important mathematicians of his generation.

He was the last fork in a road that led to my being a polymath. I went the other way.

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***This broadcast orgininally aired Nov. 19, 2009.***

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Listener E-mail from Bob

I was disappointed with your program today.  People who can memorize all the state capitals as well as the entire periodic table of 
elements  are  savants not polymaths, mere curiosities. Polymaths  
(my definition of them anyway) are those individuals who demonstrate creativity in disparate areas.  To wit,  you might have discussed any or all of  these people:

Leonardo Da Vinci (artist, engineer)
Blaise Pascal (mathematician,  physicist, philosopher) Mikhail Vasil'evich Lomonosov (astronomer, chemist, poet) Thomas Young (physician, linguist, physicist, mathematician,
Buckaroo Bonsai (neurosurgeon, particle physicist, race car driver)

I was disappointed, but I'll still listen when I can. . .  except to your "spiritual" program.  Weird  cults (and more mainline religions, for my money) do not deserve equal time with hard science.

Listener E-mail from Summers

I'm curious about the wives/women in the lives of the brainiacs on your show today.