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Does the World Need Polymaths? (bbc.com) 212

Two hundred years ago, it was still possible for one person to be a leader in several different fields of inquiry. Today that is no longer the case. So is there a role in today's world for the polymath -- someone who knows a lot about a lot of things? From a report: Bobby Seagull's fist-pumping and natty dressing, and Eric Monkman's furrowed brow, flashing teeth, contorted facial expressions and vocal delivery -- like a fog horn with a hangover -- made these two young men the stars of the last University Challenge competition. [...] They're still recognised in the street. "People often ask me, do you intimidate people with your knowledge," says Monkman. "But the opposite is the case. I have wide knowledge but no deep expertise. I am intimidated by experts." Seagull, like Monkman, feels an intense pressure to specialise. They regard themselves as Jacks-of-all-Trades, without being master of one. "When I was young what I really wanted to do was know a lot about a lot," says Monkman. "Now I feel that if I want to make a novel contribution to society I need to know a great deal about one tiny thing." The belief that researchers need to specialise goes back at least two centuries. From the beginning of the 19th Century, research has primarily been the preserve of universities. Ever since, says Stefan Collini, Professor of Intellectual History and English Literature at Cambridge University, researchers have labels attached to them. "They're professor of this or that, and you get a much more self-conscious sense of the institutional divides between domains of knowledge."
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Does the World Need Polymaths?

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday August 21, 2017 @04:03PM (#55058979)
    • by Insanity Defense ( 1232008 ) on Monday August 21, 2017 @04:40PM (#55059333)
      Troubleshooters often need wide ranging interdisciplinary knowledge.
      • by Tablizer ( 95088 )

        Troubleshooters often need wide ranging interdisciplinary knowledge.

        Around here they don't. Their algorithm is simple:

        1. Clear browser cache, if not work then...
        2. Reboot, if not work then...
        3. Google for a solution, if not work then...
        4. Delete and re-create user profile, if not work then...
        5. Re-baseline the PC, if not work then...
        6. Blame it on the software vendor

    • by ShanghaiBill ( 739463 ) on Monday August 21, 2017 @04:41PM (#55059345)

      The most valuable people often have deep expertise in TWO fields, so you can apply the knowledge of one to the other. For instance, if you are very knowledgeable about both GPU programming and fluid dynamics, you are going to make a lot of money.

      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward

        I see this with lawyer/IT combinations. They actually know their stuff when it comes to compliance, especially the incredibly Draconian laws Europe is doing, which conflict with each other (data retention for the police, as well as data purges). A lawyer who can actually crank out GPOs to do the job right is worth tens of millions.

        Plus, there is no such thing as an unemployed lawyer anyway.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Issac Asimov ....

      • by Xest ( 935314 )

        I think it goes further than that, and I made this point to the author of the original article, which he agreed with me on. I think he perhaps unintentionally sandwiched polymaths into only being useful as ambassadors between experts and the general public in his original article, but in his response he was clear to me that wasn't his intention. His fundamental point was that to make an advancement in the classic subjects as divied up in academia now you typically needed to be a single subject expert - i.e.

    • by Thelasko ( 1196535 ) on Monday August 21, 2017 @04:47PM (#55059391) Journal
      Polymaths are not "Jacks-of-all-trades". They are masters of many trades. They have incredible breadth and depth on several subjects, and are therefore incredibly rare. Due to the expanding volume of our collective knowledge, they are becoming even more rare.
      • Polymaths are not "Jacks-of-all-trades". They are masters of many trades. They have incredible breadth and depth on several subjects, and are therefore incredibly rare. Due to the expanding volume of our collective knowledge, they are becoming even more rare.

        They are possibly less rare than what we imagine, I suspect. Sure, if you mean people who have achieved fame or a high position in several branches of science, you don't see many of them, but on the other hand, most highly intelligent people rarely limit their interests to just their main area of professional interest. It is simply a myth that being brilliant in one sucject makes you more or less a moron in everything else; it is the kind of thing that looks good in a movie - the flawed genius, the idiot sa

    • The big problem is people stop after the first part, to make someone who considers themselves as a jack of all trades.
      As an MBA and Computer Scientist I can deal with the business folks and understand their issues and translate it to the Devs so the project doesn't seem stupid. Then also take all the Tech talk from the Devs and give a good business explanation to keep the project going.
      I am perfectly able to take full reigns from either side and keep things going. Even if I may not be able to do either jo

  • My breadth of specific technical knowledge is what makes me valuable to my company. I'm not saying I can't be replaced, I'm saying my unique set of knowledge that covers several different needed areas would make it difficult. That makes my "specialty" the broad range of things I can do. That specific breadth makes me valuable to my company... but unfortunately, only to my company.
    • Who do you work for? It's good to hear that there are still HR departments who acknowledge the utility of this sort of talent.

      • by gfxguy ( 98788 )
        I work for a television production studio. I started as a straightforward programmer out of college doing some graphics programs. That was over 20 years ago, and as technology evolved (and my "specialty" of programming silicon graphics workstations went by the wayside), I ended up writing tools and utilities for a variety of departments, requiring me to learn specific details about how different aspects television production works. Now I actually do very little programming, and when I do it's a different
      • HR departments don't. I got hired for one job.

        However my breadth of knowledge is what kept me employed through layoffs. Having an engineer that can be a technician is cheaper during crunch time than an engineer and a technician. Two is obviously better, but in a furlough the guillotine comes down where it does.

        It also helps to make friends across different parts of the company. IT likes me because unlike most of my engineering peers I know the basics. It means when I ask for something done on the side I have a better chance of getting it.

      • by JaredOfEuropa ( 526365 ) on Monday August 21, 2017 @07:11PM (#55060155) Journal
        Decent generalists (competent in many areas in their specific field) are somewhat rare, let alone true polymaths (expert in several fields). That means they are hard to find and recruit, plus they are somewhat hard to test, so most HR depts avoid creating job openings for them like the plague. They'd prefer to hire 5 other guys to do the same job at much greater expense, if those 5 fit their cookie cutter job descriptions. Same goes for managers, they prefer to manage interchangable resources rather than people. (Yes, there are some managers and HR people I respect, but I have very little respect for these professions as they are generally taught and practised)

        The exception seems to be working in innovation (which is not at all like thinking up cool shit with a bunch of other neck beards in a hipster office with a foosball table and an office cat, by the way). Being a generalist there can be a real asset, and a polymath even more so. But even in innovation (in larger organisations), it's not that often that the need for good generalists is recognized up front.
      • It's good to hear that there are still HR departments who acknowledge the utility of this sort of talent.

        Lots of companies value this. I highlight my own cross-competencies on my resume, and in interviews I tend to point out examples of how my knowledge in one area has enhanced my work in different, apparently unrelated areas. It never fails to impress.

    • My breadth of specific technical knowledge is what makes me valuable to my company. I'm not saying I can't be replaced, I'm saying my unique set of knowledge that covers several different needed areas would make it difficult. That makes my "specialty" the broad range of things I can do. That specific breadth makes me valuable to my company... but unfortunately, only to my company.

      Yep, good systems engineers for example may not have the depth of knowledge the guy implementing the software has, but they know enough to put the pieces together in the right order.

      • good systems engineers know all the default and most common fault conditions of the systems they build/maintain.
        *Great* systems engineers know all that and most of the less common fault conditions *and* know how to provide accurate debug data & questions to the developers such that an answer has a high probability of being the one you needed.
        a.k.a. asking the right question.

        It was something that I fought with all the damn time when I was at my former employer. SIs asked shotgun questions and provided n

        • It's less important (and impressive) to have things like codes memorized than it is to know where to look them up, and to know how to interpret them (that's different from knowing what they mean).

          • not that they have the code tables memorized! That'd be crazy.

            I mean more like hey this system is outputting funky video and knowing the things to check (and report in ticket):
            display panel
            FW blob is for correct chipset
            what BAR registers to get dumps from for video

            Things like that, vs just sending in a ticket like:
            Video on vendor foo product bar is acting funny, what causes that?
            can you tell me what FW ver I should be on? (without telling you what step and option set is in this system)
            have you seen this be

    • My breadth of specific technical knowledge is what makes me valuable to my company. I'm not saying I can't be replaced, I'm saying my unique set of knowledge that covers several different needed areas would make it difficult. That makes my "specialty" the broad range of things I can do. That specific breadth makes me valuable to my company... but unfortunately, only to my company.

      Exactly. As a kid, I was the guy who read the encyclopedias and dictionary for fun. I still hit Wikipedia a lot.

      The collective knowledge across many disciplines has allowed me to come up with some pretty novel solutions and sometimes avert disaster for the people I've worked with. It has made for a strange curriculum vitae for an Art Major. But never boring.

  • Yes, of course. (Score:4, Insightful)

    by rogoshen1 ( 2922505 ) on Monday August 21, 2017 @04:07PM (#55059005)

    Otherwise we get people who are VERY specialized in a singular field, but completely myopic.

    Then they either:
    a) don't see the connections between their field of study, and others -- kind of a silo effect
    b) have a high level of expertise in one field, and can speak with authority on that topic, but foolishly believe that it carries over to everything else.

    (this is also why liberal arts educations are a good thing, and STEM majors tend to be incredibly dull people. ;) )

    • Re:Yes, of course. (Score:4, Insightful)

      by rickb928 ( 945187 ) on Monday August 21, 2017 @04:14PM (#55059061) Homepage Journal

      Hm. Most of the STEM graduates I know are fascinating peoplw, creative problem solvers and artists in their media, be it metals, glass, electronics, plastics, whatever.

      Most of the liberal arts majors I know are self absorbed know-it-alls, unable to look past their own interests.

      But that's just my experience.

      • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

        by gfxguy ( 98788 )
        I recall a lot of the engineering students (and a handful of physics and math students I knew, but admittedly not me) were in the bands the liberal arts students would go see at local venues and who thought themselves enlightened because they knew the local music scene.
      • Re:Yes, of course. (Score:5, Insightful)

        by nine-times ( 778537 ) <nine.times@gmail.com> on Monday August 21, 2017 @04:45PM (#55059381) Homepage

        It seems like not only is that anecdotal, but it's also more opinion than fact, so from a STEM standpoint, it's not a very good answer. Also, you haven't even really provided a more subjective argument that might be considered worthwhile among the touchy-feely Liberal Arts people.

        Personally, I think the grouping of Science, Technology Engineering, and Math all together as one topic is a bit of a stupid political thing. I think that grouping all of the Liberal Arts together is a bit of a weird artifact of classical education. And I've never known anyone intelligent who was entirely interested in all the associated topics covered by either one, nor completely disinterested in the topics covered by the other.

        • But I have noticed an asymmetry.

          There is an undercurrent of, if not "anti-science", then "science ambivalence". Amongst people I know who are numerate, and scientifically literate, their interest in science is accompanied by a love of different kinds of art. Many play musical instruments, for example. Their enthusiasm and hunger for culture is not dimmed by their love of science.

          Amongst the artists I know, there is more reticence about science. Even fear. Perhaps this is because of experiences early in lif

          • There is an undercurrent of, if not "anti-science", then "science ambivalence". Amongst people I know who are numerate, and scientifically literate, their interest in science is accompanied by a love of different kinds of art. Many play musical instruments, for example. Their enthusiasm and hunger for culture is not dimmed by their love of science.

            Yes, I think I know some of those people. I'd repeat again, "I've never known anyone intelligent who was entirely interested in all the associated topics covered by either one, nor completely disinterested in the topics covered by the other." That is to say, of the people I've known who are a bit "science ambivalent", most have had some kind of interest in a limited subset of science, technology, engineering, and/or math. Those who seem to have had no interest have been people who I would consider, even

      • Many STEM graduates enjoy arts and literature as well. The difference being that when choosing what to study in college they went for STEM careers. Chances are they read some Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy too.
        Obviously some Liberal Arts graduates know a thing or two about math and chemistry as well.
      • I'm not sure I totally agree with your classification, but it's far more common for me to meet a scientist with a solid knowledge of history, art, and literature than an arts or humanities person with a solid understanding of science. More importantly, scientists are more likely to be embarrassed about their lack of knowledge, whereas humanities scholars display almost pride in their lack of understanding of physics or computer science.
        • Indeed !

          My experience is likewise. Somehow it's more acceptable to say "I hate chemistry" or "I suck at math" than it is to say "I hate sculpting", or "I suck at visual arts".

          My lifelong experience of dealing with Liberal Arts majors (anything from Literature to History to Music) is that they are much more one-dimensional, typically significantly less broadly educated, and generally totally naive about some of the more serious aspects of life like: How not to get ripped off by crappy insurance p
    • by s.petry ( 762400 )

      I majored in Math and Minored in Philosophy, at first. I ended up taking more Philosophy than I did Math and getting 2 degrees. Liberal Arts has morphed into something else today though. You can get a Liberal Arts degree without ever taking Ethics, Logic, or even more than an "Intro" class to Philosophy at most schools.

    • I feel the same as both perspectives, honestly.

      I pull from a hell of a lot of different fields to explain anything, and yet I'm always looking for people who are experts in something I don't understand. I'm a great sysadmin and systems engineer because I understand a lot about how computer systems work from top to bottom, and so see everything as an outcome of known quantities interacting in easily-recognized ways; yet I'm not Andrew Morton, I'm not a programmer, I'm not a computer scientist, and I lack

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      (this is also why liberal arts educations are a good thing, and STEM majors tend to be incredibly dull people. ;) )

      As an engineering major, I took plenty of humanities and social science electives, so I don't think the liberal arts majors learned anything that I didn't. A common defense of liberal arts majors is that they are "better communicators", but I have seen no evidence of that. I is hard to communicate well when you don't know what you are talking about.

  • by TheDarkMaster ( 1292526 ) on Monday August 21, 2017 @04:10PM (#55059031)
    I believe that I fit the description of polymath (I really know a lot about many things), but since I'm not exactly human so I do not know if my case counts.
  • The problem with "polymaths" is that their knowledge is too shallow to be of any real worth these days. It may be actively harmful to make decisions based on this type of knowledge.

    But, as it turns out, experts at the top of their game have to have a lot of surrounding knowledge and will need to be experts in more than one subject area. They also will need to be able to acquire new knowledge fast and accurately. In a sense, polymaths have been replaced by "meta-experts" that can become experts in most topic

    • by skids ( 119237 )

      "Meta-expert" might be a good way to brand things, but the reality of the matter is there's always a need for glue to hold things together, and that glue often comes in the form of being 1) able to communicate with an expert in a way that affords you at least a "well, not a complete moron" level of respect and 2) be willing to do a few menial things that nobody else wants to stoop to, but contain the fact that you do them so people don't mistake you for a "grunt"... only the people who should be grateful sh

  • The key that many companies value is not so much cross disciplinary education per se, but being able to be highly knowledgeable across a wide variety of fields and then taking that knowledge and using it to come up with unique, valuable solutions that draw on that knowledge.

    Brute forcing a problem is something you can get out of any fresh college graduate, but an elegant, economical solution that draws on multiple fields is truly valuable and the people who can regularly generate those kinds of solutions ar

  • by JohnFen ( 1641097 ) on Monday August 21, 2017 @04:24PM (#55059155)

    The value of specialization is obvious to most people, but it seems that somewhere along the line people stopped thinking of the value that generalists bring.

    Aside from general utility (the reason that you are more likely to carry a multitool with you than carrying a knife, even though the knife is much better at knifing), there is a more important thing:

    Generalists are better able to see interconnections between disciplines, and how to leverage them.

    • by gweihir ( 88907 )

      Pure generalists can, and often are badly off in what they think is going on in a field. I see that all the time. What you actually need is a combination of being a generalist with being a real expert in one or several areas. Then you can do much better plausibility-checking.

      • Yes, I suppose I should have been more specific. By "generalist", I mean someone who is actually competent in multiple areas. It's not necessary to be an actual expert -- experts fill a different sort of role.

  • The actual specialized knowledge will be available on-line through Google Assistant or whatever that morphs into in 10 years, as well as all the online learning resources like university lecture series and Khan academy, "the great courses" what have you.

    A meta-level polymath is one who knows all about philosophy of knowledge, and in a personal way, knows how to use their own mind in a way that is in accord with sound knowledge-gathering practices and knowledge-organizing practices.
    The meta-polymath, is an e

    • Further to this, I was having a discussion about this sort of thing in the cafeteria a while back. We were talking about how primary/secondary education should look, and I was saying how learning to parrot back specific knowledge was pretty useless, cause the google-web voice could do it better. They should be learning/practicing about learning (and synthesis) itself. How to gather and use available resources whatever the topic. etc. etc.

      I opined as how I was pretty handy at google and could become an insta

  • It seems IT is moving this way also. In the past, in-house apps were typically developed by app-dedicated teams. Now with MVC and similar architectures, the trend seems to be "layer specialists"; with UI experts, DB experts, security/user-role experts, etc. dedicated to that layer, and more detached from the domain. The jack-of-all-trades developers in general don't seem to be able to keep up with the latest UI trends and fads, and proverbial books are judged by their covers for good or bad.

    Or is this maybe

    • by swb ( 14022 )

      Don't forget the vendor treadmill that everybody is subject to.

      Vendors by and large "solve" the problems associated with a given functional domain (say, desktop operating systems or hypervisors) but the problem they run into is that they need to keep issuing upgrades to keep support revenue and licensing bringing in growth.

      So you wind up on these largely needless upgrade cycles which at best bring marginal functional improvements, a bunch of fringe features for a small percentage of the customer base, and a

    • I've had a recently use a product that was designed by so-called UI experts and it was a pile of hot garbage. I'd rather have people who are connected to the product and understand how it's going to be used than some UI expert that slaps their idea of some buzzword style of design that doesn't even produce a UI that's bad as a matter of taste, but as a matter of making useful information harder to get at and using up space for things no one cares about or asked for.

      It's not bad to bring in a security exp
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday August 21, 2017 @04:42PM (#55059359)

    We invented the desktop computer and now people who aren't very good at arithmetic can use a spreadsheet to calculate sales growth. This has made it possible for less intelligent people to step into roles that they would not have been qualified for a few generations ago. The big thing that is now missing is a real comprehension of the tasks they are performing, the ability to look at the results the computer gives them and question if they really make sense. The first effect of this is increased entropy, things become less stable over time, things that used to work don't work quite as well (for example, headphone plugs and headphone jacks have been standardized for years, but changes in the configurations mean some headphones won't work with some jacks). The second effect is corruption, people realizing that there are some gaps in the numbers on paper, and they can exploit them for personal gain (for example Defense contracts in the 1980's, where a toilet see could cost thousands of dollars).

  • by friedmud ( 512466 ) on Monday August 21, 2017 @04:43PM (#55059361)

    I'm in my 30s and have already had a large amount of success by having a little bit of math, computer science and engineering knowledge. I've received many awards for my work (even one from President Obama at the White House)... but I'm incredibly intimidated by my peers who all specialized in either math OR computer science OR engineering. While I'm always able to put the pieces together in a novel way... which solves interesting problems... I always feel out of my depth when it comes to conversation.

    I'm currently back at school doing a PhD in yet another interdisciplinary field: Computational Science and Engineering. But this time I'm specializing in applying it to nuclear energy production. It feels good to specialize a bit and really learn something about _one_ field in particular. I still won't be the world's greatest nuclear engineer... but at least I can hold my own in conversations now.

    In addition to just feeling like I don't know much I must admit that publishing is always difficult. Journals tend to be very specialized and deciding where to send my papers or even what audience to target can be tough.

    That said: there are not too many generalists out there, so I know that my interdisciplinary skillset will always be valuable... you just have to push past that feeling of knowing "nothing"

  • by way2slo ( 151122 ) on Monday August 21, 2017 @05:00PM (#55059495) Journal

    "A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects!" - R. Heinlein

    Never stop learning. Do not be afraid to try new things.

    It may not work for everyone, but I had many job offers base on the fact that I have done a little bit of everything. One Manager that hired me specifically said that the offer was based on the fact that I could be flexible and move to many positions on their team if needed. (and did so)

    However, utility player positions do not get the big paychecks. So eventually find something to focus on.

    • by Gim Tom ( 716904 )
      I was going to post this Heinlein quote if you hadn't. After two years in Aerospace Engineering I changed majors to Systems and Industrial Engineering so that I could take more courses in more different and unrelated subjects including Metallurgy, Geology, Linear Programming (which had nothing to do at that time with computers), Electrical engineering, fluid mechanics, psychology, and the list goes on. MY first "personal computer" was a PDP-8I, in college, in the late 1960's and I learned Algol 60 on a B
  • Here is the thing, I like learning. I'm now in my 50's and still learning things daily. A lot of things, about a lot of topics. I am not really an expert in any one thing, but I do know a lot about a lot of different areas. Science, politics/law, computers/electronics, art, mechanics and so on.

    I think what one knows is almost as important how deep. Broad knowledge over a wide range of areas allows one to see connections that others just can't see. I have a rare condition, and when I was told, I read everyt

  • by MorePower ( 581188 ) on Monday August 21, 2017 @05:08PM (#55059549)

    Of course we need polymaths, they're the only ones who can open the Chamber of Secrets!

    I might have mis-read the summary...

  • The way tech is jumping from one fad the next, you better choose very carefully if you are going to focus on one thing only. Sure by all means have a strong specialty, but not to the point where it excludes anything else.
  • by Theovon ( 109752 ) on Monday August 21, 2017 @05:32PM (#55059705)

    I am an expert and well accomplished in software engineering, digital circuit design, computer graphics, CPU architecture, and several other things. One time I had a recruiter tell me I should write one software and one hardware resume because companies won't believe that I could be good at both. Even after I'd had like 15 years of experience. It just shows you how cookie cutter hiring practices usually are.

    On the other hand after I had been working as a professor for a while, these combos came in handy to get side work as an expert witness. I guess it's okay after your reach some level or amount of experience.

    • I guess it's okay after your reach some level or amount of experience.

      This is the crux of it. If you are young and a "jack of all trades", people are going to think you lack depth of knowledge. If you are older and a "jack of all trades" people will hire you just for your breadth of knowledge.

      • by Theovon ( 109752 )

        True unless they're google in which case they don't hire older people for not being "googly" enough.

        I *thing* I know what this "googly" thing is. Younger geniuses will externalize all the alternative solutions they think of and the steps to get to ends. Older brilliant engineers will think through things quickly in their heads, automatically skip through the bad ideas, and jump straight to the end. The mostly 20 something's doing the evaluation can't understand it and reject it. It is not intentional di

  • Renaissance men belong in the Renaissance, not in the 3. millennium.

  • I've had a successful 20 year career on the basis of knowing a lot about a fairly wide range of technical topics so that I am able to bring together solutions drawing on these different disciplines. The first step on that path was getting my first job after college in a different technical area to my degree. This was a hiring mistake by my first employer, but it worked out well.

    The thing I have noticed, is that after a very deep dive into solving a particular problem in computer security a few years ago, wh

  • I can do a lot of things and I know a lot about a lot of subjects, but I'm old enough and wise enough now to know my limits.

    I've always done nearly all the maintenance on my home, car, mowers, and computers. I can talk with friends about nearly any subject they bring up - history, astronomy, physics, gardening, politics, television, music, etc.. But I'm not an expert about any of those.

    So, if my car's transmission needs work, it's time to call in a pro. If I need doctor, I go to a doctor.
  • wow (Score:5, Funny)

    by TimMD909 ( 260285 ) on Monday August 21, 2017 @06:20PM (#55059953) Homepage
    Betteridge's law of headlines fails for the first time...
  • I work with a lot of PhD's, and it appears that if you get one of those, you immediately know everything about everything.

    I had a PhD, who had just come back from a 2-day "Scientist to Sea" underway, tell me that I really didn't understand how standing watch worked on a ship, despite my having spent eight years on sea duty in the Navy, but she would be glad to "PhD-splain" it to me.

  • I started out as a Computer Engineer in avionics and evolved to System Engineering and Architecting. At that level, I had to be able to pick up virtually any engineering trade to a fairly high degree of competency. I also had to master things like human factors design and project planning, project management, etc. I would say that I absolutely had to be a "polymath" and that it is essential to have such people in the higher level positions of R&D efforts.

    I consistently see that "leaps" in technology ten

  • We have a lot of polymaths that know nothing about everything. Some of them are so proud of telling the truth that they can cast a judgment on anything.

    We call them mainstream journalists.

  • I don't think it's possible to be successful without being excellent in more than one field. There is always someone out there who knows a bit more than you, has better resources than you, or can work harder than you. The certain way you can distinguish yourself from competition is by being good at more than one thing.

    I'm a PhD scientist many years removed now from school. I'm reminded daily that I have spent more time learning about business and biology than I spent on my Physics PhD. If becoming an expert

    • by Mal-2 ( 675116 )

      If becoming an expert takes ~5 years of focused work, you can become an expert in a lot of fields.

      On the flip side, in many fields things move so fast that while you were spending 5 years on something else, you've totally fallen out of touch with your original specialty.

      AI isn't going to take nearly as long to come up to speed on new topics, because computers can read and parse data much more quickly than humans can. The next step is that computers will come up with novel insights that humans approve and take credit for -- possible so long as humans can own resources and computers cannot. But what about

  • In a commercial environment, polymaths are highly sought talents. Especially if you have a knack for communication too. On the academic side, you might not find great acclaim though.

    • Academically, there are barriers that force polymath's to pick a specialty:

      1. Everything in academics is based around papers. Usually, one does a conference paper before doing a full journal paper. The paper size limit for a conference paper is usually 6 pages. Conferences and journals are specialized - they only cover one field. Good luck introducing any moderately advanced concept from an unfamiliar field inside a 6 page conference paper. (Suggestion: Select a small sub-concept that can be explained

  • In answer to the original question: do we need polymaths? Of course we do, but possibly not attention seekers like the two mentioned; from what I could find in a quick search, their main achievement has been to amass enough knowledge about stuff to score high on University Challenge, a TV quiz show. The real polymaths are people who are highly skilled in several advanced disciplines, who can therefore bring skills from one to the other; like when physicists start working in biology or mathematicians bring t

  • by RogueWarrior65 ( 678876 ) on Tuesday August 22, 2017 @10:18AM (#55062821)

    I prefer the term Renaissance Man from a time when luminaries dabbled in everything. Having a broad range of knowledge makes you a better leader because you don't get tunnel vision. It allows you to see connections between various subjects and to come up with ideas that are greater than the parts. If deeper knowledge is required, you hire someone who has that particular skill.

  • Never let school get in the way of your education! I suppose I am such. I studied engineering, languages, creative writing, English literature, statistical genetics, analytical chemistry, music theory - all to a graduate level. I have worked as an accountant, auto mechanic, software engineer, and serious improvisational jazz violinist. I am a published writer of articles and books in software engineering, and have a US Patent as sole inventor of a means to enable adaptive systems (systems that don't require
  • In Alan Alda's book If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? (2017), he does an experiment in teaching engineering students theatrical improvisation techniques (specifically, exercises advocated by Viola Spolin).

    What he observes about these students giving (often stilted) talks to each other (especially in the before condition) is that they barely understand each other's technical jargon.

    These are students of mostly the same age and generation, attending the same school, talking mostly the sa

  • A specialist is someone who knows more and more about less and less, and ends up knowing everything about nothing. A generalist knows less and less about more and more, and ends up knowing nothing about everything.

A computer lets you make more mistakes faster than any other invention, with the possible exceptions of handguns and Tequilla. -- Mitch Ratcliffe

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