• Dr. Timothy Smith

Why We Need Polymaths

A polymath does not refer to someone who knows many types of mathematics (from algebra to geometry to calculus to trigonometry); rather, a polymath describes a person with a wide range of interests. Another term would be Renaissance Man. Probably the most famous Renaissance man of all is Leonardo da Vinci. He displayed remarkable talents across many diverse fields from painting to sculpture to engineering to anatomy and more. However, I prefer the term “polymath” because it is timeless. It is not tied to one era in European history. Rather, polymaths have emerged throughout time. The Persian polymath Abū Rayḥān al-Bīrūnī lived from 973-1048 AD and demonstrated expertise in astronomy, mathematics, history and linguistics. Hildegard of Bingen, later canonized as St. Hildegard of Bingen, excelled in writing, musical composition, medicine and philosophy during her lifetime. In fact, Germany credits her as the founder of the science of natural history. Recently, I have been reading about the 20th Century polymath, Michael Polanyi, known for major contributions in typically unrelated fields such as economics, physical chemistry and philosophy.

Michael Polanyi was born in Budapest, Hungary in 1891 into a distinguished family. His father, a railway magnate, developed much of Hungary’s rail system in the late 1800s while his mother, Cecilia, presided over a renowned intellectual salon for many years; not to mention his brother Karl, a celebrated political economist. Michael’s career reflects his evolving polymathic capabilities. He earned his medical degree when he was a young man, and after serving in World War I, the University of Budapest awarded him a doctorate in Chemistry. Following a stint as the Government Minister of Health in Hungary, Polanyi took a position in Germany. Eventually, he became head of the Institute for Chemistry and Electrochemistry. When the Nazis began to rise to power in the 1930s, he emigrated to England. There he taught and researched at the University of Manchester as a professor of physical chemistry. But his interests in economics, philosophy and social sciences eventually led the University of Manchester to give him a professorship in social sciences. His many books and contributions deserve a deeper look, much deeper than there is room for here, but I would like to focus one of Polanyi’s contributions that has had a profound effect on the study of the notion of intuition in computer science--the concept of tacit knowledge.

Tacit knowledge refers to information and knowhow that people have but cannot readily explain. Sometimes it is called intuition. Tacit knowledge stands in contrast to explicit knowledge. Explicit knowledge refers to information that can be written down, stored and distributed such as books and papers. A classic example of tacit knowledge is our ability to recognize the face of a friend in a crowd of hundreds of people. You can do it, but you cannot explain how you do it. If you met someone who was blind and did not know how to recognize a face in a crowd you could not explain what you were doing to pick out one face from the many. Polanyi introduced the concept of tacit knowledge when he realized that the skills taught and used in the laboratory by scientists often contained tacit information that is only learned by working alongside other scientists. Polanyi took issue with the current philosophy of science that stated science, which was built on the logical progression of information and conclusions shared by scientists primarily through the explicit medium of publications. He observed in his own lab that certain scientific skills could not be captured in publications but through apprenticeship and community.

Polanyi saw a bigger picture and was able to make interconnections of information and experience across disciplines that the specialists in just one field could not see. Polymaths stand in stark contrast to the standard of today, which is specialization. Specialization today is common. We do not simply have doctors; we have cardiologists, anesthesiologists, neurologists… Lawyers specialize, and teachers specialize… Specializing also tends to bring more authority and prestige. The neurosurgeon is better compensated than the general practitioner. Specialization though can stifle innovation, and it takes someone with a broader view to bring disciplines together. Many have referred to Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple Inc., as a modern-day polymath. Jobs was not just a CEO of one of the most profitable companies in the word. He was an inventor, industrial designer and entrepreneur who helped make the personal computer part of every home in America. He combined an aesthetic and technical expertise that drove the development of novel and desirable products. Before him there was no iPod, iPad or iPhone. He changed the world by making his products aesthetic and functional—desirable. The polymath can see a problem from different angles and bring different perspectives that the specialist is too focused to see. In a way we need polymaths more than ever.