|Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz
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What is a Polymath?
According to Vocabulary.com, you can think of a polymath as a classic “Renaissance man.” Take Leonardo da Vinci, for example; not only was he an amazing artist, but also an engineer, inventor, mathematician, and much more. When a person’s knowledge covers many different areas, they are a polymath. The Greek word for it is polymathes, “having learned much,” with poly meaning “much”. Having said what they are, it’s important to understand that polymaths are rare and require probing intelligence, unquenchable curiosity and inventive imagination. They have a broad range of expertise in many areas that contributes to higher levels of mastery and enlightenment in most things they do. A polymath is someone whose knowledge spans many subjects and is known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems.
Polymaths from History
Some polymaths you may be interested to read about are shown below, based on the sources referred to above and other research. It is not a full list. Arguably, it is not complete without mentioning others, more recent, such as Martine Rothblatt, Steve Jobs and Elon Musk. Martin Rothblatt is profiled later in this paper.
Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz
Leibniz was born in 1646 in Leipzig, Germany. He studied law and philosophy. At age 15, he earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in philosophy at the University of Leipzig. By the age of 20, he was a Doctor of Law at the University of Altdorf. He spent his 20s undertaking scientific studies and writing. In London, he presented a calculating machine at the Royal Society and was granted an honorary fellowship. He discovered infinitesimal calculus (a distinction shared with Sir Isaac Newton, although each made this discovery separately) – a branch of mathematics concerned with differentiation, integrations, and limits of functions. Leibniz also developed the law of continuity and transcendental law of homogeneity, cutting-edge theories that were not published or used in mathematics until the 20th century.
Mikhail Vasilyevich Lomonosov
Mikhail Vasilyevich Lomonosov Attribution: After Georg Caspar Prenner, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons [Cropped]
Lomonosov (born 1710) was a Russian polymath, scientist and writer, who made important contributions to literature, education, and science. Among his discoveries were the atmosphere of Venus and the law of conservation of mass in chemical reactions. A devoted student of Latin, he went to Moscow at the age of 19. After graduating from St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences, he went to Marburg in Germany to study metallurgy and chemistry. At 35, he returned to St Petersburg to become professor of chemistry. He formulated the kinetic theory of gases and law of conservation of mass. In 1761, he observed a transition across the Sun’s disk by Venus and, from that, inferred that Venus had an atmosphere, something experimentally proved only a century later. Lomonosov successfully opened a teaching and research lab in St. Petersburg in 1749 and, as a result of experiments there, went on to establish a factory specialising in glass mosaics. Along with the Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler, he helped found Moscow University in 1755.
Benjamin Franklin, born in 1706 in Boston, Mass., USA., was a scientist, inventor, Freemason, postmaster, humourist, civic activist, diplomat, administrator and statesman. His face still graces the US$100 bill – called ‘a Benjamin’. He was one of the ‘founding fathers’ leading the American revolution that cut ties with Britain and helped draft the Declaration of Independence. He first became a printer, then a newspaper editor. He published the Poor Richard’s Almanack, an early equivalent of Reader’s Digest, in which he coined several adages still in use today, including ‘A penny saved is a penny earned’ and ‘A friend in need is a friend indeed’. Franklin pioneered the science of demography, taking notes on America’s population growth, later used by demographer Thomas Malthus. As the USA’s Deputy Postmaster, in constant contact with mail ship captains from the mother country, he learned that some sailing routes out of England were much faster than others. The slowest was held up by an eastbound current in the mid-Atlantic, which Franklin named the ‘Gulf Stream’. He made important contributions to science, especially in understanding electricity, and is remembered for the wit, wisdom, and elegance of his writing. Franklin conducted famous electricity experiments as a scientist and inventor, inventing the lightning rod, bifocals, and the Franklin stove.
Sir Isaac Newton
Sir Isaac Newton PRS (born 1642) was an English mathematician, physicist, astronomer, theologian, and author and is one of the greatest mathematicians and most influential scientists of all time and a key figure in the scientific revolution. His 1687 book Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, established classical mechanics. Newton made seminal contributions to optics and shares credit with Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz for developing the infinitesimal calculus. The list of his achievements goes on and on (see here).
Picture Credit: Public Domain. Daniele da Volterra – Metropolitan Museum of Art, online collection (The Met object ID 436771)
Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni was born in the Republic of Florence, Italy, in 1475 with that name but was known simply as Michelangelo – during his lifetime, he was often called Il Divino (“the divine one”). He was a sculptor, painter, architect and poet of the High Renaissance and exerted an unparalleled influence on the development of Western art. His artistic versatility was of such a high order that he is a contender for the title of the archetypal Renaissance man, alongside his rival and elder contemporary, Leonardo da Vinci. Several scholars have described Michelangelo as the greatest artist of his age and even as the greatest artist of all time.
Attribution: The original uploader was Atilin at French Wikipedia., CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons
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The son of a tentmaker, the Persian scholar and poet Omar Khayyam was born in Nishapur, north-eastern Iran, in 1048. He worked first in Samarkand and Bukhara (today’s Uzbekistan). He was invited by the Sultan in 1074 to reform the solar calendar and run an astronomical observatory. He built a catalogue of the fixed stars. His best-known work in mathematics, ‘Treatise of Demonstrations of the Problems of Algebra’, dealt with the theory of cubic equations. Dubbed ‘the Astronomer Poet of Persia’, Khayyam also wrote about music and philosophy, and many of his views in this area were reflected in the famous work of poetry, the Rubaiyat. It is still very popular today. As an astronomer, he designed the Jalali calendar, a solar calendar with a very precise 33-year intercalation cycle that provided the basis for the Persian calendar that is still in use after nearly a millennium and is more accurate than that of Pope Gregory.
Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci, Portrait attributed to Francesco Melzi, c. 1515–1518, is the only certain contemporary depiction of Leonardo.
File URL: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/cb/Francesco_Melzi_-_Portrait_of_Leonardo.png
Recommendation: Read the authoritative biography of his life: Leonardo Da Vinci by Walter Isaacson.
Born 1452, the archetypal Renaissance Man, Leonardo da Vinci’s list of 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 endeavours, da Vinci introduced the idea of painting with aerial perspective—that is, painting faraway objects less distinctly and with less vibrant colours. 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 the middle of the night, a practice that 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. 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 success, most of which comes from his journals.
Nikola Tesla was a Serbian American inventor, electrical engineer, mechanical engineer, theoretical and experimental physicist, mathematician, futurist and humanitarian. He was a hyper-polyglot who could speak eight languages fluently, including Serbo-Croatian, English, Czech, French, German, Hungarian, Italian, and Latin. Tesla invented the technology that underpinned many of the 20th century’s greatest advances, including the induction motor, the first x-rays, radio-controlled vehicles, hydroelectric power turbines, wireless transmission stations, and the alternating current (AC) power standard used globally today. He was also likely the first to discover the electron, radioactivity, cosmic rays, terrestrial resonance, stationary standing waves, and fluorescent light bulbs.
While Plato and Socrates share a similar philosophical lineage at the roots of Western Civilization, Aristotle was the most polymathic of the trio. One of humanity’s greatest minds, Aristotle’s status is evidenced in part by his monolithic nicknames: “the master” or, simply, “the philosopher”. Born 382 BC, 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. But it was in moral philosophy 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. He believed that we should strive to live a life of moderation, nurturing the virtues within ourselves and avoiding the vices on either extreme end.
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The Chinese scholar and scientist Shen Kuo, sometimes spelt Shen Gua, was born in Huangzhou in 1054. After working as a civil servant dealing with water management, he was appointed director of the Astronomy Bureau, where he devised a calendar. Appointed as a senior financial bureaucrat in 1077, he fell out of favour with rulers and was restored to grace only a few years later when commissioned to make a map of all areas under Chinese control. The emperor was so pleased that he granted Shen Kuo a personal residence, known as Dream Pool. The latter spent his remaining years writing on a variety of topics, culminating in his best-known work: ‘Essays from a Dream Pool’. It consisted of more than 500 ‘observations’. He argued land was formed by erosion of mountains and deposition of silt. He linked tides with the phases of the Moon. He explained rainbows as the result of atmospheric refraction, and so on. In his other works, Shen Kuo wrote, among other topics, on the practical uses of dry docks to repair boats, and described the camera obscura effect. He also authored two geographical atlases and a scholarly text about harmonics in music.
Polymaths from the Present or More-Recent Past
Dr Martine Aliana Rothblatt
Dr Martine Aliana Rothblatt is an American lawyer, author, entrepreneur, and transgender rights advocate. She is Chairman & CEO of United Therapeutics, a company she launched to save the life of one of her daughters. She leads efforts to create novel therapies for rare diseases, to decode the pharmacogenomic properties of medicines and to manufacture an unlimited supply of transplantable organs.
Rothblatt previously created and led Sirius XM as its Chairman & CEO and launched other satellite systems for navigation and international television broadcasting. In the field of aviation, her Sirius XM satellite system enhances safety with real-time digital weather information to pilots in flight nationwide, and she designed the world’s first electric helicopter, subsequently setting dual-pilot speed, altitude and endurance records in it.
Dr Rothblatt also led the first efforts to create transgender health law standards and to protect privacy and autonomy rights in genetic information via an international treaty. She has a Bachelor’s (Communications Studies, Summa Cum Laude), JD1F and MBA degrees from UCLA, and a PhD in Medical Ethics from the Royal London School of Medicine & Dentistry2F.
After creating satellite radio with a startup that went on to become Sirius XM, Martine Rothblatt was on the verge of retirement. But her daughter’s rare lung disease inspired her to start United Therapeutics and develop an oral medication that changed the lives of thousands of patients3F.
Born in October 1954 to a Jewish family from Chicago, Illinois, she was raised in a suburb of San Diego, California.
She graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles, with JD and MBA degrees in 1981 and then began to work in Washington, DC, first in communications satellite law and eventually in life sciences projects like the Human Genome Project.
She is the founder and chairwoman of the board of United Therapeutics. She was also the CEO of GeoStar and the creator of SiriusXM Satellite Radio. In 2013, Rothblatt was the highest-paid female CEO in America, earning $38 million. Rothblatt received total compensation of nearly $32 million in 2014. In 2018, she was the top-earning CEO in the biopharmaceutical industry, earning a compensation package worth $37.1 million from United Therapeutics4F.
Rothblatt left college after two years and travelled extensively, including the Seychelles, where at the NASA tracking station during the summer of 1974, she had her epiphany to unite the world via satellite communications. Rothblatt subsequently became an active member of the L5 Society5F and its Southern California affiliate, Organization for the Advancement of Space Industrialization and Settlement (OASIS).
During her four-year JD and MBA program, also at UCLA, she published five articles on the law of satellite communications and prepared a business plan for the Hughes Space and Communications Group titled PanAmSat about how satellite spot beam technology could provide communication service to multiple Latin American countries. She also became a regular contributor on legal aspects of space colonization to the OASIS newsletter.
Rothblatt’s career is awesome:
- 1981: Upon graduating from UCLA in 1981, Rothblatt was hired by the Washington, DC, law firm Covington & Burling to represent the television broadcasting industry before the Federal Communications Commission in the areas of direct broadcast satellites and spread spectrum communication.
- 1982: She left Covington & Burling to study astronomy at the University of Maryland, College Park but was soon retained by NASA to obtain FCC approval for the IEEE C band system on its tracking and data relay satellites and by the National Academy of Sciences’ Committee on Radio Frequencies to safeguard before the FCC radio astronomy quiet bands used for deep space research. Later that year, she was also retained as vice president to handle business and regulatory matters for a newly invented satellite navigation technology known as the Geostar System.
- 1984: Rothblatt was retained by Rene Anselmo, founder of Spanish International Network, to implement his PanAmSat MBA thesis as a new company that would compete with the global telecommunications satellite monopoly, Intelsat.
- 1986 – 1990: Rothblatt discontinued her astronomy studies and consulting work to become the full-time CEO of Geostar Corporation. She left Geostar in 1990 to create both WorldSpace and Sirius Satellite Radio.
- 1992 – 1997: She left Sirius in 1992 and WorldSpace in 1997 to become the full-time Chairman and CEO of United Therapeutics. Rothblatt helped pioneer airship internet services with her Sky Station project in 1997, together with Alexander Haig6F. She also led the International Bar Association’s biopolitical project to develop a draft Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights for the United Nations (whose final version was adopted by UNESCO in November 1997 and endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly in December 1998). In 1994, at age 40, Rothblatt came out as transgender and changed her name to Martine Aliana Rothblatt. In 1996, Rothblatt had sex reassignment surgery and became a vocal advocate for transgender rights. At that time, she also began studying for a PhD in medical ethics at the Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry, Queen Mary University of London. The degree was granted in June 2001 based upon her dissertation on the conflict between private and public interests in xenotransplantation. This thesis, defended before England’s leading bioethicist John Harris, was later published by Ashgate House under the title Your Life or Mine.
- 2017 – 2018: Rothblatt is an aeroplane and helicopter pilot with night-vision goggle (NVG) certification. On 16th February 2017, her electric helicopter established new world records of a 30-minute duration flight and an 800-foot altitude at Los Alamitos Army Airfield. On 4th March 2017, Rothblatt and Ric Webb set a world speed record for electric helicopters of 100 knots at Los Alamitos Army Airfield.
These days, United Therapeutics refurbishes human lungs and flies them to hospitals in unmanned electronic helicopter drones designed by Rothblatt.
In January 2017, an article by Judy Olian on FT.com (here) summed up Martine Rothblatt perfectly:
‘Rothblatt is many people. She is a lawyer, an MBA and a PhD in bioethics. She is the author of six books, among them [are] The Apartheid of Sex, Unzipped Genes and Virtually Human: The Promise — and the Peril — of Digital Immortality. She is transgender: she attended UCLA Law and UCLA Anderson in the late 1970s to early 1980s as Martin and some ten years later transitioned to become Martine. Her wife then and now, Bina, and their four children, are a close-knit, loving family.’
You can watch Martina Rothblatt on TED – click here.
Picture Credit: “Public Domain: Paul Robeson by Charles Henry Alston (NARA)” by pingnews.com is marked with CC PDM 1.0
Paul LeRoy Bustill Robeson, born 9th April 1898, was the son of a former escaped slave turned Presbyterian minister. Robeson grew up in Princeton, New Jersey and became an American bass-baritone singer and stage and film actor. He found fame through his many cultural accomplishments but was equally well-known for his political activism. He was also a scholar, a lawyer, a linguist and the greatest American footballer of his time.
Robeson’s radical influences stimulated and fed his growing interest in African civilisations, cultures and languages and eventually led him to take classes in Swahili and Phonetics at SOAS in 1934. Robeson was an accomplished linguist and studied other major African languages such as Igbo, Yoruba and Zulu, in addition to important Asian languages, such as Chinese and Hindi.
Interesting to note that Robeson’s 1934 application form for admission to the SOAS University of London’s School of Oriental Studies showed that he already had ABMA from Rutgers College (1919) and a law degree from Columbia Law School (1923).
Robeson’s political activities began with his involvement with unemployed workers and anti-imperialist students whom he had met in Britain. This continued to grow – Robeson supported the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War and opposed fascism. Robeson became active in the Council on African Affairs (CAA), supporting their efforts to gain colonised African countries independence from European colonial rule. Returning to the United States during World War II, Robeson supported the American and Allied war efforts. But, after the war ended, the CAA was placed on the US Attorney General’s List of Subversive Organisations, and Robeson was investigated during the age of McCarthyism. He was active in the civil rights movement, showed sympathies for the Soviet Union and communism, and became vociferous in his criticism of the US government and its foreign policies. He refused to sign an affidavit disclaiming membership in the Communist Party. It did not bode well for him and he was denied a passport by the US State Department. It meant he could no longer travel abroad to perform, and his career was stifled. Of this time, Lloyd Brown, a writer and long-time colleague of Robeson, stated: “Paul Robeson was the most persecuted, the most ostracised, the most condemned black man in America, then or ever.” After eight years, Robeson’s right to travel was restored due to the 1958 United States Supreme Court decision in Kent v. Dulles. In 1915, Robeson won an academic scholarship to Rutgers College, where he stood out as a class football player and was the class valedictorian. He received his LL.B. from Columbia Law School while playing in the National Football League (NFL). Whilst at Columbia in the 1920s, he sang and acted in off-campus productions, and after graduating, he made his mark with performances in The Emperor Jones and All God’s Chillun Got Wings.
Picture Credit: Source/Acknowledgement: https://twitter.com/soas/status/1050025312770244609
Robeson was an All-America football player at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Upon graduating from Rutgers at the head of his class, he rejected a career as a professional athlete and entered Columbia University instead. In 1995, more than seventy-five years after graduating from Rutgers College, his athletic achievements were finally recognised with a posthumous entry into the College Football Hall of Fame.
Paul Robeson had a most beautiful voice, and his linguistic skill meant he could sing in more than 20 different languages. Between 1925 and 1961, Robeson recorded and released around 300 songs, many of which were recorded several times. The first of these were the spirituals Steal Away backed with Were You There? in 1925. He spanned many styles, including Americana, popular standards, classical music, European folk songs, political songs, poetry and spoken excerpts from plays.
Robeson performed in Britain in a touring melodrama, Voodoo, in 1922 and in Emperor Jones in 1925, and scored a major success in the London premiere of Show Boat in 1928, whilst living in London for several years with his wife.
With songs such as his trademark Ol’ Man River (listen to it here – guaranteed to make your hair stand on end), he became one of the most famous concert singers of his time. He also gained attention in the film production of Show Boat (1936) and other films such as Sanders of the River (1935) and The Proud Valley (1940). Although a handful of movies and recordings are still available, they are a sad testament to one of the greatest Americans of the 20th century. In the early 1960s, he retired and lived the rest of his life privately in Philadelphia, trying to cope with his demons, dying on 23rd January 1976.
“I’m goin’ to tell God all of my troubles when I get home.”
Those words – from Robeson – sung and recorded in New York City on 10th May 1927 – epitomise a gifted but tormented life. Robeson rose to the pinnacle of fame as an actor and singer but fell to the nadir as an activist.
I hope readers have enjoyed this paper. Of course, I accept you might say I have missed a few great thinkers, like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, John Von Neumann, Galileo7F and many others – I apologise for their omission. Since the beginning of time, humankind has produced numerous geniuses, from all of whom has emerged something that has changed the world. Strangely, and quite often, two or more polymaths have arrived at their gift to the world independently of each other: let me leave with you the following text from the E&T website8F:
‘It’s hard to be truly original. Many major discoveries have been made repeatedly by different inventors working without knowledge of each other’s research. Newton and Leibniz invented calculus, Wallace and Darwin found the theory of natural selection at the same time, and Alexander Graham Bell put in a patent for the telephone on the same day as Elisha Gray. These are the quite well-known cases. Lesser-known examples include the almost independent discovery of the planet Neptune by Leverrier and Adams, oxygen by Scheele and Priestley in 1774, while four different astronomers are credited with the discovery of sunspots (Galileo, Fabricius, Scheiner and Harriott), all in 1611.
If there are enough competent minds attacking the same problem, invention is inevitable – it is often cumulative and, in that sense, collective.’
Sources and Further Reading
Polymaths in General
- Book: The Polymath: A Cultural History from Leonardo da Vinci to Susan Sontag, by Peter Burke, at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Polymath-Cultural-History-Leonardo-Sontag/dp/0300250029/
- Book: The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin: Download: https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/148
- Critical Path about the future mentality and design of an ecological civilisation by Buckminster Fuller, at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Critical-Path-Buckminster-Fuller-1981-03-23/dp/B01NH01LF8/
Dr. Martine Rothblatt
- Source: https://eandt.theiet.org/content/articles/2019/05/great-polymaths-of-history-all-the-all-round-geniuses/ ↑
- JD is also known as Doctor of Law or Doctor of Jurisprudence. ↑
- Source: https://www.lifenaut.com/martine-rothblatt/ ↑
- Source: https://www.ted.com/speakers/martine_rothblatt ↑
- The figures include stock options ↑
- The L5 Society was founded in 1975 by Carolyn Meinel and Keith Henson to promote the space colony ideas of Gerard K. O’Neill (an American physicist and space activist). In 1987, the L5 Society merged with the National Space Institute to form the National Space Society. ↑
- Alexander Haig was the United States Secretary of State under President Ronald Reagan and the White House chief of staff under presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. ↑
- Galileo di Vincenzo Bonaiuti de’ Galilei, commonly referred to as Galileo. ↑
- Source: https://eandt.theiet.org/content/articles/2019/05/great-polymaths-of-history-all-the-all-round-geniuses/ ↑