The Polymath’s Curse

I have always fancied myself to be a bit of a polymath. For those of you who aren’t one, dictionary.com defines a “polymath” as “a person of great learning in several fields of study.” While this may hardly seem like a humble thing to call myself, I like to try to embody this ideal as best I am able (I didn’t mention it in my profile, but in addition to my honours degree in mathematical physics, I also have a completely unrelated three-year BA in the history of Pre-Industrial Europe, and I try to stay abrest, as best I am able, of other fields of inquiry as well).

There is, however, an inherent problem to being a polymath in that society favours specialization. This isn’t anyone’s fault of course; I believe it’s simply a result of the economics of comparative advantage; thus, whereas it would be my natural inclination to know “a little bit about everything,” it’s much more practical to know “a lot about one thing.” Though XKCD has nicely satirized the idea of wanting to major in everything, that is I what I genuinely wanted to do in ungraduate university (it is, in fac t, why I have two completely unrelated degrees; I found myself unable to sit down and just pick one).

I have tried to satiate my desire by devoting myself to the study of the biggest thing I could find: literally, the universe itself, at its most fundamental level (or the closest thing to it that can be found in modern science). And don’t get me wrong; I would be the first to say that it is very interesting, but I’m still uncomfortable with spending so much time on a single subject. While, in principle, the vibrational modes of strings* can describe all matter and energy in the universe, there are quite a few orders of magnitude between Planck -sclae interactions and the poetry of Sarah Teasdale.

What’s more, I can’t shake the feeling that the parts of my brain that are unrelated to physics have been atrophying from lack of use. I have formerly enjoyed a certain quality of ‘fluidity’ in my mind, by which I mean that I could shift rapidly from a “physicist” mindset to an “historian” mindset, or an “artist” mindset (I seem to recall reading that my ability to do so may be related to my autism, but I can;t remember where at the moment), but I seem to be at risk of suffering some sort of ‘modelock.’ All of this is a bit ironic, if only because one of the reasons why I ultimately selected physics is that so many other things seemed so second nature to me, whereas physics was actually difficult.

Perhaps all that I need is a brief vacation, and some time to read random books. If so, then I should get that in the next few weeks.

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*I will tell you my opinion of string theory at a later date, but suffice it to say that like (I suspect) most physicists of the most recent generation, I don’t like how much stock has been put into it over the last 30 years or so.

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About thevenerablecorvex

I have the heart of a poet, the brain of a theoretical physicist, and the wingspan of an albatross. I am also notable for my humility.
This entry was posted in Academics, Personal Stuff, Physics and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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