May 3, 2010

Leonardo the Polymath

The Renaissance was a time of dramatic cultural change that included a rise in the acquisition of knowledge for the sake of learning, as opposed to more occupational or utilitarian motivations. The idea of empowerment through knowledge helped define the era.

Embodying this sentiment was a host of famous polymaths, or individuals with a wide-spectrum of talents and knowledge. One of the most famous polymaths from this time was Leonardo da Vinci, whose paintings, drawings, sketches, observations and ideas proved to be, at times, centuries ahead of the curve. An outline of just a few of his varied accomplishments would include discoveries in human anatomy (Biology), engineering advanced machinery (Physics), and geological insights (Environmental Science), as well as volumes of artistic masterpieces.

Leonardo’s capacity for invention knew no bounds, and his interests would often overlap and complement one another to a certain degree. For example, it would make sense that an innate understanding of the human skeletal structure would help in an artistic recreation of the human form.

However, there are many other crossover connections: the laws of Geometry, for example, are closely related to one of Leonardo’s most famous paintings, and studies in bird anatomy would certainly play a role in the invention of a few of his flying machines. Finally, Leonardo’s unflinching powers of observation, a common trait amongst artists, would play a huge role in his continued exploration of the world around him, scientifically, artistically, and otherwise.

Of course, nowadays, anyone with an Internet connection has an unprecedented amount of information available at their fingertips at all times. But does that mean it’s harder to really shine as a polymath? One might make the argument that it is easier to invent and discover in a time of great ignorance simply because there is more to be discovered or invented.

Others, however, would state that the rise of information technology brings with it greater prospects for polymath-like achievements thanks to copious cross-disciplinary collaboration opportunities. With a few keystrokes, someone could go from studying painting techniques to discussing mathematical engineering.

If you want to become a polymath, pursue what you like. Try to learn as much as you possibly can on a subject and then relate it back to other areas of interest. While finding a niche specialization might sound tempting, competence (and even mastery) in several different disciplines is now possible thanks to the technologies of the information age. Forget the limits and there's no telling what you may find!

Apr 27, 2010


Life is full of risks. They can range from the remote, like getting struck by lightning, to the everyday, like getting into a fender-bender on your way to class. However, some individuals actively seek-out risky activities, and according to research, that kind of behavior is more commonplace in adolescents. In fact, the military will specifically target a younger crowd when looking for recruits, not just for their physical ability, but for their increased willingness to risk their lives in combat as well. So - why do we like to take more risks when we’re young?

Scientists believe a lot of it has to do with biology and psychology. When we’re teenagers, our brains are still developing, in particular the parts that govern risk assessment and emotion. And if examined under the light of our evolutionary past, it would make sense that greater risk-taking would accompany sexual maturity.

But instead of hunting with spears or interacting with potentially hostile neighbors, humans nowadays typically get their risky-fix from other activities, like partying hard, smoking, or driving aggressively, to name just a few.

However, a recent study that examined the brains of teenagers seems to contradict the widely-held belief that thrill-seeking youth have less developed brains than their less adventurous peers. In fact, the study revealed that adolescents who thrive on dangerous activities actually exhibit more “adult-like” frontal white matter. Whether this development comes from the dangerous activity or the dangerous activity comes the development is unclear.

In general, humans are consummate risk-takers. Thankfully, we no longer have to wrestle with saber-toothed tigers to get an adrenaline rush- modern society can provide plenty of outlets for some “calculated” risk-taking. The next time you feel like doing something crazy, try a roller coaster. Or, you could take your ride out for some fast laps at a local track day. Or maybe try your hand at climbing at a nearby rock gym. The point is- there’s an underlying reason for those crazy impulses. Put them to good use.