How to think like a Renaissance man — or woman

Are you a polymath, too?

How to think like a Renaissance man — or woman
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  • Some of the greatest scientists and artists were polymaths.
  • Renaissance men or polymaths are people who have mastered multiple disciplines and pursuits. The path towards becoming one doesn't always require some divine genius.
  • Interest in varied subjects and disciplines is the first step toward thinking like a polymath.

It's not easy branching into different subjects today and mastering them. The sheer amount of knowledge and intellectual vocations floating around is enough to keep a million da Vinci's busy for centuries. The amount of time and expertise many people dedicate to just one domain often leaves them bereft of any other subject mastery.

Yet, even today the staying power and mythologization of the polymath persists. There is good reason to believe that any scientific or civilization progress has been spurred and created off the backs of the multifaceted polymath. The alternative of hyper specialized disciplines has left us with siloed subfields and occluded knowledge which persists in some miasmic mix of cross-disciplinary stagnation and some kind of new scientific priest craft.

The prospects of learning how to think like a renaissance man pervade all levels of inquiry and culture. It's not just our top scientists who could learn to branch into new disciplines, but regular curious everyday people can benefit too.

Praise for the specialist and disdain of the generalist 

We often hear, somewhat disparagingly the phrase: "Jack of all trades, master of none." This maxim seems to be a commonality across multiple languages and cultures. For example, the Chinese also warn: "Equipped with knives all over, yet none is sharp."

Now when you think about it, this is some very misplaced common sense gone awry. Many of the most impactful individuals throughout human history have been men and women with an unbelievable amount of varied interests and talents. It is because of this very reason that they were so successful in whatever they did.

Writer Robert Twigger believes that this faulty way of thinking about specialization versus applied generalized mastery is due to a phenomenon in which he coined the word monopath. He states:

"We hear the descriptive words psychopath and sociopath all the time, but here's a new one: monopath. It means a person with a narrow mind, a one-track brain, a bore, a super-specialist, an expert with no other interests — in other words, the role-model of choice in the Western world."

He believes that this stems from an economic viewpoint of success. Just as it's become more efficient to interact with creating things through cut-off specialized points of contact – à la the assembly line production method, we seemed to have done the same thing with our own personal interests and talents.

Twigger then says:

"The monopathic model derives some of its credibility from its success in business. In the late 18th century, Adam Smith (himself an early polymath who wrote not only on economics but also philosophy, astronomy, literature and law) noted that the division of labour was the engine of capitalism. His famous example was the way in which pin-making could be broken down into its component parts, greatly increasing the overall efficiency of the production process."

Because of this economic value that specialization presents us with, we tend to abandon any other divergent passions that we might be interested in. On top of that, we are also under the false impression that any true learning stops once you reach a certain age.

Learning doesn’t stop once you get older

Many of us believe that our best learning years are behind us. Some of us might also feel like we missed the boat when it comes to natural talent. But all of these things are misrepresentations of how our mind and the acquisition of knowledge work.

While neurologically it's true that it's much easier to learn when we're younger, there's a part of our brain we have to exercise if we're going to continually learn and grow.

"It appears that a great deal depends on the nucleus basalis, located in the basal forebrain. Among other things, this bit of the brain produces significant amounts of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that regulates the rate at which new connections are made between brain cells.

This in turn dictates how readily we form memories of various kinds, and how strongly we retain them. When the nucleus basalis is 'switched on', acetylcholine flows and new connections occur. When it is switched off, we make far fewer new connections"

The nucleus basalis is completely "active" between birth and the ages of ten or eleven. Afterwards, it seems that our brains become more selective about the knowledge we hold. But this neurochemical process doesn't define us or what we can or cannot learn. It must be exercised if we're to learn to think like a renaissance man.

Looking back at those wondrous higher types of antiquities and the Renaissance, we begin to see many trends. A polymath is someone who's expertise flows like a flood, encompassing and saturating any field it comes across. 15th century polymath Leon Battista Alberti once wrote that a man can do anything that he wills. The ideal of perfection during the Renaissance was the master of all.

This great higher ideal of a human excelled in artistic, intellectual and even physical activities. Nothing was out of bounds for them. While all of this might conjure up imagery of the greats like Michelangelo, Goethe, or some other Faustian archetype… the polymath is something we can all subscribe to in some fashion. Polymaths in a way embody the childish curiosity made manifest into experience and doing.

Science fiction author Robert Heinlein once said:

"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."

Not everyone can be a genius, but everyone can engage in polymathic activity.

How Leonardo da Vinci thought about learning

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"I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do." - Leonardo da Vinci

Contemplation leads to self-actualization once you set out to do something. The reason that someone like Leonardo was able to accomplish and do some much, is because he wasn't just content to question and learn about something then forget about it. He set himself into action and practice for everything that interested himself.

From great paintings, anatomical research, futuristic inventions and so on – Leonardo is a great guide for engaging in multiple fields and excelling in them.

Here are some general lessons that we can learn from da Vinci and other great thinkers.

  • Question all established schools of thought and start from the beginning. When Richard Feynman, renowned physicist, was younger he read and was inspired by Leonardo's notebooks. Richard set out to understand the world in its many multitudes of being and expression. He set out to explore the edges of our understanding and even question fundamentals we take for truth. In high school he once came to an independent discovery of trigonometry where he created his own symbols for trigonometric functions.
  • Don't limit yourself to only studying one minute slice of life. A great deal of people spend their entire lives only worrying about a few things. Sometimes it's even comical what nonsense people dedicate themselves to.
  • Learning is a never ending process that doesn't occur over a few days or weeks. It is a lifelong pursuit. There will be an enormous amount of failures and false starts along the way. But knowledge comes to those who persist in their studies.
  • Always record your thoughts in some manner. Whether it be through journaling, taking notes on your smartphone or voice memos. Whatever method you use, it must be able to capture your thoughts and experiences. There is even a theory called the Extended Mind, which posits that mental processes and your mind extend beyond yourself and into your environment. Creating notebooks could be a way of extending your cognition.

Overall, there is plenty of proof that multidisciplinary polymathy is a benefit to learning, self expression and scientific progress. There was a study at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, which found that medical students were able to increase their observational recognition skills after taking an art class.

Whisking yourself away into the ancient halls of unbounded inquiry will not hinder your goals in life, they will instead facilitate you to new heights of greatness.

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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