Amazing Polymaths in the Modern Era
What is a Polymath…and do they still exist?
In modern times, it’s increasingly common for people who demonstrate great intellect to specialise in one particular field of study and research. Physics, electrical engineering, language semantics and art history are all well-known fields and there are countless others that attract the attention of the intellectually gifted. However, in previous eras of humanity, it was more commonplace for great minds to focus their talents across a broader range of subjects.
Leonardo Da Vinci (1452 – 1519), for example, is known as one of the greatest creative minds of the Italian Renaissance. A widely acknowledged and influential artist and sculptor, he was also an incredibly talented engineer, scientist and inventor.
Someone who has highly developed skills across a broad range of disciplines is called a ‘polymath’. Leonardo Da Vinci qualifies as perhaps one of the best-known polymaths in history.
Modern Day Polymaths
But are polymaths figures of the distant past, consigned to the history books, or do we have modern day polymaths? Are there truly great minds out there who excel across a spectrum of disciplines? Are there people in our times who contribute, not just in one field of study, but in many? Here we look at four modern-day intellectual powerhouses who could certainly claim to be polymaths.
Herbert Alexander Simon (1916 – 2001)
Herbert Simon was a Nobel Prize Laureate and American political scientist . His research covered the fields of cognitive psychology, cognitive science, computer science, public administration, economics, management, philosophy of science and sociology. One of the most highly regarded social scientists of the twentieth century, he was also a senior professor at Carnegie Mellon University for many years.
Simon was a pioneer of artificial intelligence, information processing, decision making, problem solving, organisation theory, complex systems and computer simulation of scientific discovery. His research and findings are widely cited. In fact, he has almost a thousand highly cited publications available today.
Receiving top honours throughout his life, he was affiliated with several Carnegie Mellon departments, such as the School of Computer Science, Tepper School of Business and the Departments of Philosophy, Social and Decision Sciences and Psychology.
Elon Reeve Musk (Born 1971)
Elon Musk is a world-renowned intellectual powerhouse with a penchant for inventing and developing products that help humanity to live in a more environmentally conscious and sustainable manner. With a vast knowledge and plethora of abilities across many different fields, his achievements and contributions to modern-day society seem almost limitless. His talents extend to computer science, programming, software development, physics, chemistry, engineering, rocket science, automotive design and materials science. Companies he has founded, helped to found or led extensively, include, PayPal, SpaceX, Tesla Motors and SolarCity.
Erez Lieberman (Born 1980)
A relatively young addition to this list is Erez Lieberman. An American research scientist, he is active across multiple fields including biology, computer science, history, linguistics and sociology. He has published extensively in the fields of nature and science and holds degrees in physics, mathematics and history.
Discover Magazine recently ran an article about his work entitled, ‘The Renaissance Man, and how to become a scientist over and over again.’ He was named as one of the top innovators under 35 by Technology Review in 2009 and was one of the recipients of The Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers in 2011.
Lieberman has also been awarded some of the top awards in science, including the Lemelson-MIT Student Prize and the American Physical Society’s Award for Outstanding Doctoral Thesis Research in Biological Physics.
Jonathan Wolfe Miller (Born 1934)
Jonathan Wolfe Miller is a well-known writer and television personality who is a respected and recognised public intellectual in both the UK and the United States. A medical doctor, Miller began working as an actor in the early 1960s and began directing operas in the 1970s.
Drawing on his experience as a doctor, he both wrote and presented ‘The Body in Question’ for the BBC in 1978. He was also vice president for the Campaign for Homosexual Equality during this time and researched and campaigned for the cause. Miller continued to write and present for television and theatre during the 80s and 90s.
Amongst his honours and awards he is an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Art, an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians (London and Edinburgh) and an Honorary D. Phil at the University of Cambridge.
These four examples are drawn from an impressive stable of multi-talented intellectuals who are actively working and contributing to our world today. In modern times, the polymath is increasingly rare but there are still examples of these extraordinary individuals to be found. Long may their astonishing work and seemingly tireless appetite for learning continue.