Category Archives: Polymaths

Polymathy and Reddit

Interdisciplinarity is growing. The internet has made it easy for people with diverse interests to research and work on many projects unrelated to their job or primary study. Reddit, the popular link-site / discussion board, is no exception. Reddit is a great tool for people with diverse interests because it makes it easier to follow developments in many different fields without belonging to the relevant social circles.

I’m familiar with at least two subreddits: /r/interdisciplinary and /r/polymath. The first is the largest and perhaps has the best content. Better, we have control over it, so we can attempt to link it up with the polymath project if there is some occasion to do so.


Scientific genius is associated with abilities in the fine arts

A study finds scientific genius (measured in various ways) is associated with abilities in the fine arts. The abstract of the study is:

Various investigators have proposed that “scientific geniuses” are polymaths. To test this hypothesis, auto­ biographies, biographies, and obituary notices of Nobel Prize winners in the sciences, members of the Royal Society, and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences were read and adult arts and crafts avocations tabulated. Data were compared with a 1936 avocation survey of Sigma Xi members and a 1982 survey of arts avocations among the U.S. public. Nobel laureates were significantly more likely to engage in arts and crafts avocations than Royal Society and National Academy of Sciences members, who were in turn significantly more likely than Sigma Xi members and the U.S. public. Scientists and their biographers often commented on the utility of their avocations as stimuli for their science. The utility of arts and crafts training for scientists may have important public policy and educational implications in light of the marginalization of these subjects in most curricula.

Full citation: Root-Bernstein, Robert, et al. “Arts foster scientific success: Avocations of Nobel, National Academy, Royal Society, and Sigma Xi members.” Journal of the Psychology of Science and Technology 1 (2008): 51-63. Non-gated download link.

This should have the interest of followers of this blog. Here’s some of the data:


As can be seen, Nobel winners were much, much more likely to have artistic interests than members of the general public. By all means, read the paper yourself. It is only 13 pages. The authors have spent some time collecting anecdotes from various scientific geniuses that illustrate their love for the arts and science.


Polymaths, freedom of information, and copyright – why we need copyright reform to more effectively increase the number of polymaths

Emil Kirkegaard, board member of Pirate Party Denmark


Polymaths are people with a deep knowledge of multiple academic fields, and often various other interests as well, especially artistic, but sometimes even things like tropical exploring. Here I will focus on acquiring deep knowledge about academic fields, and why copyright reform is necessary to increase the number of polymaths in the world.

Learning method
What is the fastest way to learn about some field of study? There are a few methods of learning, 1) listening to speeches/lectures/podcasts and the like, 2) reading, 3) figuring out things oneself. The last method will not work well for any established academic field. It takes too long to work out all the things other people have already worked out, if indeed it can be done at all. Many experiments are not possible to do oneself. But it can work out well for a very recent field, or some field of study that isn’t in development at all, or some field where it is very easy to work it things oneself (gather and analyze data). Using data mining from the internet is a very easy way to find out many things without having to spend money. However, usually it is faster to find someone else who has already done it. But surely programming ability is a very valuable skill to have for polymaths.

For most fields, however, this leaves either listening in some form, or reading. I have recently discussed these at greater length, so I will just summarize my findings here. Reading is by far the best choice. Not only can one read faster than one can listen, the written language is also of greater complexity, which allows for more information acquired per word, hence per time. Listening to live lectures is probably the most common way of learning by listening. It is the standard at universities. Usually these lectures last too long for one to concentrate throughout them, and if one misses something, it is not possible to go back and get it repeated. It is also not possible to skip ahead if one has already learned whatever it is the that speaker is talking about. Listening to recorded (= non-live) speech is better in both of these ways, but it is still much slower than reading. Khan Academy is probably the best way to learn things like math and physics by listening to recorded, short-length lectures. It also has built-in tests with instant feedback, and a helpful community. See also the book Salman Khan recently wrote about it.

If one seriously wants to be a polymath, one will need to learn at speeds much, much faster than the speeds that people usually learn at, even very clever people (≥2 sd above the mean). This means lots, and lots of self-study, self-directed learning, mostly in the form of reading, but not limited to reading. There are probably some things that are faster and easier to learn by having them explained in speech. Having a knowledgeable tutor surely helps in helping one make a good choice of what to read. When I started studying philosophy, I spent hundreds of hours on internet discussions forums, and from them, I acquired quite a few friends who were knowledgeable about philosophy. They helped me choose good books/texts to read to increase the speed of my learning.

Finally, there is one more way of listening that I didn’t mention, it is the one-to-one tutor-based learning. It is very fast compared to regular classroom learning, usually resulting in a 2 standard deviation improvement. But this method is unavailable for almost everybody, and so not worth discussing. Individual tutoring can be written or verbal or some mix, so it doesn’t fall under precisely one category of those mentioned before.

How to start learning about a new field
Continue reading


Amy Chow, Polymath

Project Polymath’s vision is to create a whole army of da Vincis, spreading across the world with their diverse skills and talents in art, music, medicine, mathematics, science, and many other fields of study.  Since Leonardo da Vinci was from another time and culture, though, I have wondered what form modern polymaths might take.  I thought back to my days as a gymnast and realized that I already knew of at least one: Amy Chow, Olympic champion gymnast, concert pianist, elite-level diver, and doctor.

Amy Chow

During the summer of 1996, I watched the USA Olympic Team Trials.  I was twelve years old, I made straight A’s in school, and I very much enjoyed my piano lessons and gymnastics classes.  So, of course I took note when the commentators talked about Amy Chow and her elite-level piano skills, her 4.0 GPA, and her daring tricks on the vault, bars, beam, and floor.  (Her skill level was much more impressive than mine.)  On the second day of the Olympic Trials, she fell off the beam and hit her head, but she finished the routine (by the end of the competition, one could see a purple bruise right by her eye).  Because of her perseverance, she made the Olympic team, and I was even more amazed on the night I saw her and her teammates make history by winning America’s first team gold medal in gymnastics.

Amy became a two-time Olympian in 2000, after which she went to medical school at Stanford University and specialized in pediatrics.  In more recent years, Amy has done both diving and pole-vaulting.  Her skills in gymnastics lent very well to other sports and helped her go from recreational-level diving to national-level diving in approximately a year’s time.  She may have even advanced to the 2012 Olympic Trials for diving, had she not suffered an injury prior to the meet.

Amy summed up the heart of the polymathic pursuit when she said, “I like learning new things”.¹  She has described integrating and synthesizing her areas of expertise; she has a particular interest in sports medicine and helping children enjoy a healthy, meaningful athletic experience.²   She sets goals that are high but realistic for her, and she then takes the steps necessary to pursue them.  From her experiences, she has learned important life skills, including responsibility, dedication, problem solving, perseverance, and teamwork.²  Any budding polymath would do well to emulate these qualities.

Watch Amy’s beam routine here

Watch Amy’s uneven bars routine here

Hear an interview with Amy


¹ Palo Alto Medical Foundation. (2012).  “Amy Y. Chow, MD, FAAP.”  Retrieved 4 January 2012 from .

² Peters, Keith. (2011). Olympian Amy Chow dives into a new challenge.  Palo Alto Online Sports.  Retrieved 4 January 2012 from .