Throughout history a lot of scientists have made quite an impact on our world and their names have gone down in history. Galileo, Al Biruni, Maria Gaetana, Benjamin Franklin and probably most famously Leonardo DaVinci. All of these people made large and lasting contributions to a variety of fields and for that have been called Renaissance men/women, or polymaths.
Perhaps the reason they became so well known is because they managed to touch so many different fields. If you were to study practically any branch of science or art, somewhere in it’s history you would be sure to come across Leonardo. As a painter, sculptor, engineer, biologist and more the man is hard to avoid. As the one who painted the Mona Lisa, designed the first flying machines, produced the Vitruvian Man and left countless famous sculptures around Italy many people consider DaVinci the renaissance man. Needless to say, the world would not be the same without him, or any of the other historical polymaths. But there are plenty of scientists who have made important contributions to the world but are still forgotten by history. Why is that?
Firstly, let me say, it’s not that these people don’t get recognized at all. In the science community they are usually well known and honoured. However, if you go up to a random person on the street and ask them who David J. Wineland is, they would probably have no clue (he was the co-winner of the 2012 Nobel prize in physics for his work in measuring quantum systems by the way). Obviously people can’t be expected to keep up with every scientist around, but even scientists such as Jan Oort, Michael Faraday and Gregor Mendel, who should be well known are anonymous people to many in today’s society.
While I would attribute a large part of this to society’s fascination with pop culture celebrities and criminals while ignoring education, I think it also has to do with specialization. While we as a people learn more and more about the things around us, more questions pop up. When once we questioned “what is fire?” we now question “what makes a better fire?”, “What effect does fire have on other things?”, “How does fire react in different environments?” and ” What else can we use in place of fire?” all at the same time. It’s become impossible for one person to be able to make significant contributions to such a wide variety of fields. Even being able to contribute to more than one area of physics can be a challenge. Every answer we get creates new questions and the every expanding tree of discovery has become just too large for polymaths to make an impact.
With so many scientific and sociological subjects to cover, we can’t keep up with notable names in every category, and no one is making a huge impact in a wide variety of fields. The renaissance men of the past were brilliant without a doubt, but they lived in simpler times with easier questions to answer and thus were able to answer more of them. Scientists these days are forced into smaller and more specific fields of study in order to get any meaningful work done. But that’s not to say the renaissance man doesn’t exist any more. And some of them have made big names for them selves, often in other ways. Education has been a big one.
Some have considered Billy Nye, Carl Sagan, Neil DeGrasse Tyson and other like them to be ambassadors of Education. They have spread curiosity and appreciation for the world around us to multiple generations. They may not have made significant contributions in fields such as biology or social sciences, but they have stepped well out of their specialized areas to communicate how the world around us works.
Others, such as Elon Musk, have made a name for themselves through business. Now, musk is a great businessman, but he’s gotten to where he is by using his knowledge of programming, physics, electronics, renewable energy, space and economics (to name a few). Again, he may not be notable for a specific invention or painting, but there’s no doubt he’s a polymath and his name will go down in history.
Specialization in science has become a necessity for advancement. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t all try our best to branch out and learn what we can, no matter what field we work or study in. We need those polymaths out there to bring together all those vast branches of science and lead humanity into tomorrow.