3 Brilliant Polymaths, and the Advice They Left Behind
Polymaths are people who have excelled in diverse pursuits, and several of those polymaths left us with some very practical advice on how to succeed.
Master of all trades, Jack of none.
The main problem of choosing what to do in life boils down to simple math: every hour you spend on one pursuit is one less spent on another. This problem is so paralyzing that some people never even choose. In the West, those who specialize in a singular craft or field hope that their capitalistic society will reward them as specialists—after all, would a wealthy executive pay huge fees to an attorney who dabbles in finance law? Not likely.
Polymaths are different. They manage to achieve mastery across multiple industries, arts, or fields of study. So what sets them apart? The willingness and drive to learn new things, writes Robert Twigger:
[T]he pessimistic assumption that learning somehow ‘stops’ when you leave school or university or hit thirty is at odds with the evidence. 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.
The key idea to becoming a more successful polymath is to try new things, as Twigger explains:
People as old as 90 who actively acquire new interests that involve learning retain their ability to learn. But if we stop taxing the nucleus basalis, it begins to dry up. In some older people it has been shown to contain no acetylcholine—they have been ‘switched off’ for so long the organ no longer functions. In extreme cases this is considered to be one factor in Alzheimers and other forms of dementia — treated, effectively at first, by artificially raising acetylcholine levels. But simply attempting new things seems to offer health benefits to people who aren’t suffering from Alzheimers. After only short periods of trying, the ability to make new connections develops. And it isn’t just about doing puzzles and crosswords; you really have to try and learn something new.
Here's a look at a few of history's most notable polymaths, and some of the practical advice they left along the way.
Aristotle (382 BC–322 BC)
Aristotle's status as one of humankind's greatest minds is evidenced in part by his monolithic nicknames: "the master" or, simply, "the philosopher." He was a polymath who made fundamental contributions to diverse fields of study, including logic, rhetoric, ethics, physics, story, poetry, government, metaphysics, geology and zoology.
It was in moral philosophy, however, that Aristotle gave some of his most practical advice. To live well, Aristotle argued, people should behave according to virtues that allow them to excel in many types of situations across time. Each virtue relates to a vice, which can either exist in deficiency or excess. Aristotle believed that we should strive to live a life of moderation, nurturing the virtues within ourselves and avoiding the vices on either extreme end.
More about Aristotle below:
Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519)
The archetypal Renaissance Man, the list of Leonardo da Vinci’s accomplishments is staggering.
As an artist, he was the father of the High Renaissance style, having painted the 'Mona Lisa' and 'The Last Supper.' Applying observations he made in his scientific endeavors, da Vinci introduced the idea of painting with aerial perspective—that is, painting faraway objects less distinctly and with less vibrant colors.
Da Vinci was also particularly interested in anatomy. He used his skills as an artist to create the Vitruvian Man, a study on body proportion and an exemplar of the intersection of math and art common in the Renaissance era. To get an even better understanding of the human body, he would dissect cadavers in middle of the night, a practice which was eventually barred by the pope.
Da Vinci made contributions to many other fields: urban planning, mathematics, botany, astronomy, invention, history, sculpting and cartography. There are simply too many to note. Ultimately, his greatest achievement, perhaps, was making others feel bad about how little they had done with their lives. Still, da Vinci left us with some great advice on how to be successful, most of which comes from his journals.
Bertrand Russell (1872–1970)
British Philosopher, logician, mathematician, writer, historian, political activist and Nobel laureate Bertrand Russell made many contributions to the academic world, particularly within mathematical logic and analytic philosophy. His contributions in these fields—specifically his paradox and type theory—have been used in computer programming and beyond. But he's perhaps better known to the general public as a social critic, speaking with unflinching clarity on moral issues ranging from warfare to Jesus Christ.
In 1927, Russell gave a lecture titled Why I am not a Christian that would become a famous essay, influencing a new generation of religious critics. Russell received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950 "in recognition of his varied and significant writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought."
A year later, Russell published this list of advice for an article titled 'The Best Answer to Fanaticism–Liberalism' in the New York Times Magazine.
1. Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.
2. Do not think it worth while to proceed by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.
3. Never try to discourage thinking for you are sure to succeed.
4. When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.
5. Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.
6. Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.
7. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.
8. Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.
9. Be scrupulously truthful, even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.
10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.
Join Radiolab's Latif Nasser at 1pm ET on Monday as he chats with Malcolm Gladwell live on Big Think.
Astronomers find these five chapters to be a handy way of conceiving the universe's incredibly long lifespan.
- We're in the middle, or thereabouts, of the universe's Stelliferous era.
- If you think there's a lot going on out there now, the first era's drama makes things these days look pretty calm.
- Scientists attempt to understand the past and present by bringing together the last couple of centuries' major schools of thought.
The 5 eras of the universe<p>There are many ways to consider and discuss the past, present, and future of the universe, but one in particular has caught the fancy of many astronomers. First published in 1999 in their book <a href="https://amzn.to/2wFQLiL" target="_blank"><em>The Five Ages of the Universe: Inside the Physics of Eternity</em></a>, <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fred_Adams" target="_blank">Fred Adams</a> and <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gregory_P._Laughlin" target="_blank">Gregory Laughlin</a> divided the universe's life story into five eras:</p><ul><li>Primordial era</li><li>Stellferous era</li><li>Degenerate era</li><li>Black Hole Era</li><li>Dark era</li></ul><p>The book was last updated according to current scientific understandings in 2013.</p><p>It's worth noting that not everyone is a subscriber to the book's structure. Popular astrophysics writer <a href="https://www.forbes.com/sites/ethansiegel/#30921c93683e" target="_blank">Ethan C. Siegel</a>, for example, published an article on <a href="https://www.forbes.com/sites/startswithabang/2019/07/26/we-have-already-entered-the-sixth-and-final-era-of-our-universe/#7072d52d4e5d" target="_blank"><em>Medium</em></a> last June called "We Have Already Entered The Sixth And Final Era Of Our Universe." Nonetheless, many astronomers find the quintet a useful way of discuss such an extraordinarily vast amount of time.</p>
The Primordial era<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjkwMTEyMi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNjEzMjY1OX0.PRpvAoa99qwsDNprDme9tBWDim6mS7Mjx6IwF60fSN8/img.jpg?width=980" id="db4eb" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="0e568b0cc12ed624bb8d7e5ff45882bd" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image source: Sagittarius Production/Shutterstock<p> This is where the universe begins, though what came before it and where it came from are certainly still up for discussion. It begins at the Big Bang about 13.8 billion years ago. </p><p> For the first little, and we mean <em>very</em> little, bit of time, spacetime and the laws of physics are thought not yet to have existed. That weird, unknowable interval is the <a href="https://www.universeadventure.org/eras/era1-plankepoch.htm" target="_blank">Planck Epoch</a> that lasted for 10<sup>-44</sup> seconds, or 10 million of a trillion of a trillion of a trillionth of a second. Much of what we currently believe about the Planck Epoch eras is theoretical, based largely on a hybrid of general-relativity and quantum theories called quantum gravity. And it's all subject to revision. </p><p> That having been said, within a second after the Big Bang finished Big Banging, inflation began, a sudden ballooning of the universe into 100 trillion trillion times its original size. </p><p> Within minutes, the plasma began cooling, and subatomic particles began to form and stick together. In the 20 minutes after the Big Bang, atoms started forming in the super-hot, fusion-fired universe. Cooling proceeded apace, leaving us with a universe containing mostly 75% hydrogen and 25% helium, similar to that we see in the Sun today. Electrons gobbled up photons, leaving the universe opaque. </p><p> About 380,000 years after the Big Bang, the universe had cooled enough that the first stable atoms capable of surviving began forming. With electrons thus occupied in atoms, photons were released as the background glow that astronomers detect today as cosmic background radiation. </p><p> Inflation is believed to have happened due to the remarkable overall consistency astronomers measure in cosmic background radiation. Astronomer <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IGCVTSQw7WU" target="_blank">Phil Plait</a> suggests that inflation was like pulling on a bedsheet, suddenly pulling the universe's energy smooth. The smaller irregularities that survived eventually enlarged, pooling in denser areas of energy that served as seeds for star formation—their gravity pulled in dark matter and matter that eventually coalesced into the first stars. </p>
The Stelliferous era<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjkwMTEzNy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMjA0OTcwMn0.GVCCFbBSsPdA1kciHivFfWlegOfKfXUfEtFKEF3otQg/img.jpg?width=980" id="bc650" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c8f86bf160ecdea6b330f818447393cd" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image source: Casey Horner/unsplash<p>The era we know, the age of stars, in which most matter existing in the universe takes the form of stars and galaxies during this active period. </p><p>A star is formed when a gas pocket becomes denser and denser until it, and matter nearby, collapse in on itself, producing enough heat to trigger nuclear fusion in its core, the source of most of the universe's energy now. The first stars were immense, eventually exploding as supernovas, forming many more, smaller stars. These coalesced, thanks to gravity, into galaxies.</p><p>One axiom of the Stelliferous era is that the bigger the star, the more quickly it burns through its energy, and then dies, typically in just a couple of million years. Smaller stars that consume energy more slowly stay active longer. In any event, stars — and galaxies — are coming and going all the time in this era, burning out and colliding.</p><p>Scientists predict that our Milky Way galaxy, for example, will crash into and combine with the neighboring Andromeda galaxy in about 4 billion years to form a new one astronomers are calling the Milkomeda galaxy.</p><p>Our solar system may actually survive that merger, amazingly, but don't get too complacent. About a billion years later, the Sun will start running out of hydrogen and begin enlarging into its red giant phase, eventually subsuming Earth and its companions, before shrining down to a white dwarf star.</p>
The Degenerate era<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjkwMTE1MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNTk3NDQyN30.gy4__ALBQrdbdm-byW5gQoaGNvFTuxP5KLYxEMBImNc/img.jpg?width=980" id="77f72" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="08bb56ea9fde2cee02d63ed472d79ca3" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image source: Diego Barucco/Shutterstock/Big Think<p>Next up is the Degenerate era, which will begin about 1 quintillion years after the Big Bang, and last until 1 duodecillion after it. This is the period during which the remains of stars we see today will dominate the universe. Were we to look up — we'll assuredly be outta here long before then — we'd see a much darker sky with just a handful of dim pinpoints of light remaining: <a href="https://earthsky.org/space/evaporating-giant-exoplanet-white-dwarf-star" target="_blank">white dwarfs</a>, <a href="https://earthsky.org/space/new-observations-where-stars-end-and-brown-dwarfs-begin" target="_blank">brown dwarfs</a>, and <a href="https://earthsky.org/astronomy-essentials/definition-what-is-a-neutron-star" target="_blank">neutron stars</a>. These"degenerate stars" are much cooler and less light-emitting than what we see up there now. Occasionally, star corpses will pair off into orbital death spirals that result in a brief flash of energy as they collide, and their combined mass may become low-wattage stars that will last for a little while in cosmic-timescale terms. But mostly the skies will be be bereft of light in the visible spectrum.</p><p>During this era, small brown dwarfs will wind up holding most of the available hydrogen, and black holes will grow and grow and grow, fed on stellar remains. With so little hydrogen around for the formation of new stars, the universe will grow duller and duller, colder and colder.</p><p>And then the protons, having been around since the beginning of the universe will start dying off, dissolving matter, leaving behind a universe of subatomic particles, unclaimed radiation…and black holes.</p>
The Black Hole era<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjkwMTE2MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzMjE0OTQ2MX0.ifwOQJgU0uItiSRg9z8IxFD9jmfXlfrw6Jc1y-22FuQ/img.jpg?width=980" id="103ea" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="f0e6a71dacf95ee780dd7a1eadde288d" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image source: Vadim Sadovski/Shutterstock/Big Think<p> For a considerable length of time, black holes will dominate the universe, pulling in what mass and energy still remain. </p><p> Eventually, though, black holes evaporate, albeit super-slowly, leaking small bits of their contents as they do. Plait estimates that a small black hole 50 times the mass of the sun would take about 10<sup>68</sup> years to dissipate. A massive one? A 1 followed by 92 zeros. </p><p> When a black hole finally drips to its last drop, a small pop of light occurs letting out some of the only remaining energy in the universe. At that point, at 10<sup>92</sup>, the universe will be pretty much history, containing only low-energy, very weak subatomic particles and photons. </p>
The Dark Era<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjkwMTE5NC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0Mzg5OTEyMH0.AwiPRGJlGIcQjjSoRLi6V3g5klRYtxQJIpHFgZdZkuo/img.jpg?width=980" id="60c77" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="7a857fb7f0d85cf4a248dbb3350a6e1c" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image source: Big Think<p>We can sum this up pretty easily. Lights out. Forever.</p>
Innovators don't ignore risk; they are just better able to analyze it in uncertain situations.
Remarkable 'fan art' commemorates 50th anniversary of legendary guitar player's passing.
- Legendary rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix died exactly 50 years ago today.
- From September 1966 to his death, he performed over 450 times.
- This spectacular 'gigograph' shows the geographic dimension of his short but busy career.
Last night at the Samarkand<video controls id="3f8a7" width="100%" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="5cd31bc25fbed5fd4fbc5905d44527e8" expand="1" feedbacks="true" mime_type="video/mp4" shortcode_id="1600450310811" url="https://roar-assets-auto.rbl.ms/runner%2F19636-JimiHendrix_LivePerformances.mp4" videoControls="true"> <source src="https://roar-assets-auto.rbl.ms/runner%2F19636-JimiHendrix_LivePerformances.mp4" type="video/mp4"> Your browser does not support the video tag. </video><p>On September 17, 1970, Jimi Hendrix awoke at the Samarkand Hotel in Notting Hill, London, in the basement flat where his German girlfriend Monika Dannemann was staying. At around 2 p.m., they had tea in the hotel's garden and Monika took some snaps of Jimi with 'Black Beauty,' his favorite Fender Stratocaster guitar. Those were the last pictures ever taken of him. </p><p><span></span>Later in the afternoon, the couple went out – visiting local hipness hotspot <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kensington_Market,_London" target="_blank">Kensington Market</a>, an antiques market in Chelsea and Jimi's suite at the Cumberland Hotel, near Marble Arch. They had tea and wine at a friend's flat, argued and made up, and went back to the Samarkand Hotel, where they had a late meal, drank a bottle of wine and Jimi wrote a poem titled 'The Story of Life.'</p><p>Well after midnight, Hendrix went to a party, where he took some amphetamine. Dannemann showed up at the party, and around 3 a.m. the couple returned to the Samarkand. Unable to sleep, Jimi took nine of Monika's sleeping pills (the recommended dose was half a pill). When she awoke that morning, she found him unresponsive and covered in vomit. Around noon of the 18th of September – exactly 50 years ago today – Jimi Hendrix was pronounced dead.</p><p>The last stanza of the poem he wrote the night before reads:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"><em>The story of life is quicker than the wink of an eye.</em></p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"><em>The story of love is hello and goodbye.</em></p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"><em>Until we meet again.</em></p><p>Amid the initial confusion surrounding his death, the poem was mistaken by some for a suicide note. Several subsequent investigations have provided nothing but indications of an accidental death. <br></p>
Immortalised in the '27 Club'<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQyNDQ3NC9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMDU1NjcxNX0.27c7ESrA2OnXExGCsigfs5jOVoAAAR-M9pn3sIFRZdA/img.png?width=980" id="b5894" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="6979d0862296c37bddbf9ea081cd3171" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="\u200bJimi Hendrix performing for the Dutch TV show 'Hoepla' on 11 June 1967." />
Jimi Hendrix performing for the Dutch TV show 'Hoepla' on 11 June 1967.
Credit: A. Vente, CC BY-SA 3.0<p>Arguably the<a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cJunCsrhJjg&ab_cha..." target="_blank"> greatest guitarist in rock history</a>, Hendrix was one of the first modern members of the '27 Club' – musicians immortalised mid-fame, dead at the still-tender age of 27. Earlier members include Robert Johnson (d. 1938) and Brian Jones (d. 1969), later ones Janis Joplin (who died two weeks after Hendrix), Jim Morrison (d. 1971), Kurt Cobain (d. 1994) and Amy Winehouse (d. 2011).</p><p>In the States, Hendrix had made a name for himself as a band guitarist, playing for both Little Richard and Ike Turner. Not an undividedly positive name: he got fired from both of those bands. His own career – as a solo artist, and as the leader of the Jimi Hendrix Experience – only took off when he moved to London. <br></p><p>The graph above connects over 450 dots, one for each gig he played. It shows the amount of hard work Hendrix put into his career, and how it paid off – after criss-crossing Northwestern Europe, but mainly England, his fame hops back across the Atlantic and becomes transcontinental. A few samples from his <a href="https://concerts.fandom.com/wiki/Jimi_Hendrix" target="_blank">gig database</a>:</p>
London first, London last<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQyNDQ4My9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzMDQ4MTg5Nn0.ST2r7qyiI9CELqKP0-CpoV7YIWioAEQBXscq9mJVESM/img.jpg?width=980" id="86886" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="0d79abc719416b4068456e6938fcd776" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="The Jimi Hendrix Experience in 1968, with Jimi, bass player Noel Redding (right) and drummer Mitch Mitchell (on the floor)." />
The Jimi Hendrix Experience in 1968, with Jimi, bass player Noel Redding (right) and drummer Mitch Mitchell (on the floor).
Credit: public domain<ul><li>24 September 1966: first solo performance in London, at Scotch of St James.</li><li>13 October 1966: first concert of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, supporting Johnny Halliday in Évreux, France.</li><li>18 January 1967: performing 'Hey Joe' on 'Top of the Pops', at the BBC TV's Lime Grove Studios in London.</li><li>18 June 1967: first stateside gig, at the <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fe82eYRjiBU&ab_cha..." target="_blank">Monterey International Pop Festival</a> in California.</li><li>3 July 1967: first East Coast show, at the Scene Club in NYC.</li><li>9 October 1967: L'Olympia, Paris.</li><li>14 November 1967: at the Royal Albert Hall in London; first gig of package tour with Pink Floyd, The Nice and others.</li><li>31 December 1967: at the Speakeasy in London. Jimi plays a 30-minute rendition of <em>Auld Lang Syne</em>.</li><li>12 March 1968: jam session with Jim Morrison, Buddy Miles and others at The Scene in NYC.</li><li>22 June 1968: at The Scene in NYC, Jimi jams with the original lineup of the Jeff Beck Group, which also includes Rod Stewart and Ron Wood.</li><li>14 September 1968: Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles.</li><li>23 January 1969: two shows at the <em>Sportpalast</em> in Berlin, Germany.</li><li>18 May 1969: Madison Square Garden, NYC.</li><li>29 June 1969: Mile High Stadium, Denver – the last performance of the Jimi Hendrix Experience.</li><li>17 August 1969: <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MwIymq0iTsw&t=14s&..." target="_blank">Woodstock</a>, New York.</li><li>30 August 1970: Isle of Wight Festival, England.</li><li>16 September 1970: jam with Eric Burdon's new band War at Ronnie Scott's in Soho, London. Jimi's last public performance.</li></ul><p>This bit of 'fan art' was created by Owen Powell, who points out that "it's not an academic study of Jimi Hendrix's movements, more a visualisation of the data mapped in sequential order." So if he flew home between gigs, that's not recorded here. <br></p><p><em>The Jimi Hendrix 'gigograph' reproduced with kind permission from Mr Powell. Check out his <a href="https://twitter.com/owenjpowell" target="_blank">twitter</a> and his <a href="https://owenpowell.wordpress.com/" target="_blank">website</a>.</em></p><p><strong>Strange Maps #1048</strong></p><p><strong></strong><em>Got a strange map? Let me know at </em><a href="mailto:email@example.com" style="">firstname.lastname@example.org</a>.<br></p>
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