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Education Science

The Modern Day Renaissance Man 59

Posted by Soulskill
from the likes-all-the-major-sports-plus-polo dept.
Kilrah_il writes "The Not Exactly Rocket Science blog has an interesting piece about Erez Lieberman Aiden, a scientist that is frequently hopping from one field to another, including 'molecular biology, linguistics, physics, engineering and mathematics.' This is in contrast to the prevailing trend of specializing in a specific field. 'I think a huge amount of invention is recognizing that A and B go together really well, putting them together and getting something better. The limiting step is knowing that A and B exist. And that's the big disadvantage that one has as a specialist – you gradually lose sight of the things that are around. I feel I just get to see more,' Aiden said. The post shows how failure to map antibodies led to an important discovery of the 3D folding of DNA and how the study of irregular verbs created a new scientific field."
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The Modern Day Renaissance Man

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  • by timeOday (582209) on Friday June 10, 2011 @01:22PM (#36403786)
    Yes, generalists are important for the reasons stated in the blurb. But specialists provide grist for the mill of generalists - you can only investigate different combinations of known components for so long.
    • Yes, generalists are important for the reasons stated in the blurb. But specialists provide grist for the mill of generalists - you can only investigate different combinations of known components for so long.

      Indeed. I am a generalist myself, working a lot on integrating stuff. Sometimes it's people, sometimes it's code, sometimes pieces of information. But without the rest of our team at work I'd probably be a lot less useful. Glue is useful to put pieces together, but build something out of glue only and you'll get a shapeless blob...

      I know I'll likely never be really fundamentally great at anything. I'm too easily bored... So instead I try to be good at everything, and use that to my advantage. At least I'll

      • by trum4n (982031)
        I work the same way as you, but my field is electrical engineering. I also work on cars, so the natural next step was a homebrew electric car. My computer skills led to an in dash computer to control media and monitor the batteries, motor and controller. My chemist side wants to build my own batteries, but my smart side knows I'll probably die or be grievously harmed doing so. Projector lenses and LED emitters should make decent headlights.... Yea I'm crazy, but at least I'm not afraid to use it!
        • by ryantmer (1748734)
          Wow, you sound remarkably similar to me, except replace all the past tense verbs with future tense :)
    • Feynman was renowned for crossing disciplines - aside from physics he would sit in on biology classes (and once asked a library if they had a "map of a cat" to aid his studies), learned the bongos to a respectable level, taught himself to paint semi-professionally and learned a great deal about locksmithing and safe design while working at Los Alamos. Yes, he was a physics specialist, but an inquiring mind will always find distractions, and sometimes those distractions will lead to interesting developments
  • by simoncpu was here (1601629) on Friday June 10, 2011 @01:27PM (#36403846)
    Jumping from field to field to pursue your passion sounds great, but unfortunately, most of us need to work. I think most geeks would opt to become a "Renaissance Man" given enough funds. :)
    • You don't need to be paid to work in a topic to read a couple books on the subject. All those books college students read (and better ones than that) are available to be purchased and read by anyone, so if there's a subject you know little about, go for it! I majored in computer science, but since school I've managed to get a basic handle on continental philosophy, classical economics, medieval history, literary criticism, and psychoanalysis in just a few thousand pages. There's always more to know, and I'm looking forward to reading about edible plants in my region, organic farming techniques, and the status of women in former Soviet republics.

      Get some books!

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by Anonymous Coward

        If the definition of renaissance man is broadened to mean being well-versed in many subjects, then yes, any bright individual can become one in their spare time.

        It normally means that the person is a useful contributor to many fields, though. (Ripped right from wikipedia: "When someone is called a Renaissance man today, it is meant that he does not have only broad interests or a superficial knowledge of several fields, but rather that his knowledge is profound and often that he also has proficiency or accom

        • by ShakaUVM (157947)

          It doesn't mean a Renaissance Man is a contributor (this is often an arbitary thing anyway), but simply that a person has a good level of understanding in a lot of subjects. The latter is certainly possible - the former, perhaps not so much, unless you partner with someone else in the field. Publishing in a different field is difficult if you don't know the conventions.

      • ...I'm looking forward to reading about edible plants in my region, organic farming techniques, and the status of women in former Soviet republics.

        It seems that you are trying to create a farm labored by women from Eastern Europe at minimum wage, perhaps even a cult. Need some help with that?

      • by metlin (258108)

        The point is, while you may gain a superficial understanding, you will not ever be an expert in the subject to understand some of the more complex (and often, worthwhile) problems.

        I find math to be an excellent example. Sure, you can learn all kinds of stuff about math on a superficial level. But if you want to prove the Poincaré conjecture or Fermat's last theorem, you're not going to be able to do that overnight, and certainly not without dedicating a lifetime to the problem (and even then, you

        • The point is, while you may gain a superficial understanding, you will not ever be an expert in the subject to understand some of the more complex (and often, worthwhile) problems.

          It depends on what you mean by "complex" problems, which I think you are using as a synonym for specialized problems. In that case, your argument is a bit circular -- specialists will only ever have the capacity to understand and solve specialist problems.

          But "complex" problems are often ones that may not even be seen as "problems" by the specialist, or they may be assumptions that are just taken for granted or even assumptions that are admitted to be limitations, but everyone in a field uses them, so no

    • The reason most of us are not free to "jump from field to field" is because we have debts and dependents.

      So young'uns, you have choices. Be a caregiver, be a debtor, be a polymath. Pick no more than two.

      • The logical inference is that debt holds back scientific progress. Where does debt come from? Banks attach it to money creation. Therefore, if govt creates debt-free money, more ppl can be polymaths or unimaths or whatever they want to be, and standard of living will increase faster than if we trust to the free market.

        • I totally agree with the sentiment.

          > standard of living will increase faster than if we trust to the free market.
          I think you mean it will increase faster when we trust to the free market. Because fractional reserve banking is not a free market, it's a fraudulent Ponzi scheme.

          > if govt creates debt-free money
          Letting the market choose a tangible commodity for a currency seems far more sound than having the gov't inflate an unbacked money supply at its own discretion.

          • Letting the market choose a tangible commodity for a currency seems far more sound than having the gov't inflate an unbacked money supply at its own discretion.

            Why do so many people think inflation was non-existant under the gold standard?

            • Because the technical definition of "inflation" is expansion of the money supply.

              What most people call inflation now is really just a symptom. Rising prices come from weakened purchasing power which comes from the increase in supply.

              When people traded a tangible commodity, the supply would inflate as more of that commodity was produced, and deflate as the commodity was consumed or stockpiled.

              The size of the money supply was dynamic, but changes tended to be modest and went both up and down.

              ps - My original

              • Because the technical definition of "inflation" is expansion of the money supply

                You mean like when the Spanish looted S.America's gold they doubled the gold reserves of Europe.

                A "standard" is not a tangible commodity. Gold is. Government-issued notes backed by government-issued promises is not.

                Money always has, and will always be, founded on an intangible commodity called "trust". If you trust gold more than bank notes then nobody is stopping you from converting you paper money to gold, sea shells, or whatever it is you personally trust as a token of exchange. Sure, that might be a good decision if the apocalypse happens tomorrow or next week, but in the meantime you will have enourmous difficulties ge

                • > You mean like when the Spanish looted S.America's gold they doubled the gold reserves of Europe.

                  Exactly, that did inflate their money supply, and once it all worked its way into their economy it would have halved the gold's purchasing power.

                  > Money always has, and will always be, founded on an
                  > intangible commodity called "trust"

                  Citation needed. But you won't find it, because you're absolutely wrong.

                  We started out bartering tangible commodities, no trust required. Then in time we standardized on

    • Agreed. It's mostly a matter of time and money. If you have both, you can be a generalist. Today I'm taking a few courses on Sociology, learning an instrument, a foreign language, and doing engineering work: when I had a girlfriend, she and my job was all I could handle.

      • by darronb (217897)

        Funny, it's my wife that enables me to be the workaholic I really want to be. She gets annoyed if I'm sitting on the couch... so I'm always working.

        I started off in software. I then jumped to firmware, FPGAs, electronics, and PCB design... now I'm slowly adding mechanical and manufacturing processes.

        I've watched a lot of EE-only or software-only people design horribly sub-optimal designs basically because they only used what they know. By at least being exposed to other fields, you can do much better d

    • by ShakaUVM (157947)

      Being a renaissance man can be good for your career. Easy examples are math, physics, and art with computer science, or basic layout/design skills learned in journalism applied to web site design.

      But more esoteric cross-studies can be valuable as well. A friend of the family, Dr Bart Kosko, a rather preeminent EE professor at USC, drew a lot of inspiration for his chosen specialization, fuzzy logic, from his undergraduate background in philosophy, as well as his Buddhism.

      Going outside of your field can giv

  • by mlts (1038732) * on Friday June 10, 2011 @01:33PM (#36403906)

    Contrary to Robert Heinlein, specialization is not for insects. Especially in fields where not one single person can have all the details.

    This doesn't mean education other than the field of study is pointless. It is important to know something about biology, nuclear physics, math, and other items. However, trying to do a career as a jack of all trades means that one ends up a commodity, competing without any real advantages.

    Specialization keeps people employed. For example, I know guys still doing SAP Basis administration. Unless the company they work for wants to completely chunk most of its internal workings, those guys are not going anywhere.

    A balance needs to be reached. Being a one trick pony is bad. So is a jack of all trades. So, it doesn't hurt to always keep versed in multiple items. So, if SAP gets phased out, one can always use cross skills learned from Basis administration as a DBA. If the DBA game doesn't work out, there is always development.

    • by base3 (539820)

      Specialization keeps people employed. For example, I know guys still doing SAP Basis administration. Unless the company they work for wants to completely chunk most of its internal workings, those guys are not going anywhere.

      Isn't SAP Basis (and PeopleSoft, JD Edwards, and the like) I administration fairly easily outsourced, especially with consolidated data centers and companies moving their databases to "the cloud"? I would be afraid of being commoditized and to that end be working on becoming a line-of-

    • by Ol Olsoc (1175323)
      Spoken like a true specialist! As a person who worked in many barely related fields, I suppose you'd think of me as a Jack of all trades. That's sort of wrong. I'm very, very, good in all my fields. A problem with so much of American business and academia is that there is an attitude that a person can only be an expert in one thing at a time. That's a first class way to make bad decisions.
  • by Metsys (718186) on Friday June 10, 2011 @01:38PM (#36403934)

    IDEO has a really good philosophy about the type of people they hire to work in their firm. They refer to these types of people as T-shaped People. T-shaped People have a broad understanding of almost everything, but there's one thing that they are pretty darned good at. That allows some who is an experienced and knowledgeable engineer to innovate and collaborate with designers, programmers, fine artists, psychologists, or anyone one else in their team, and as the article states, that it allows them to innovate better because they understand more about the world around them.

    So basically a T-shaped person is a hybrid between a specialist and a generalist. You do need people who have a deep understanding of one subject to get stuff done, but a broad understanding of everything else to communicate with people who have deep knowledge in their own field.

    • by meburke (736645)

      For a lucid argument on the need for generalists, read "Critical Path" by R. Buckminster Fuller.

  • by GuruBuckaroo (833982) on Friday June 10, 2011 @01:55PM (#36404154) Homepage

    Robert Heinlein put it best:

    "A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly."

    • i don't know how to write a sonnet

      shit, i'm screwed

    • by Anonymous Coward

      1. Change a diaper
      The disposable or reusable kind? The reusable kind is harder to use.
      Changing a disposable diaper is trivial, and with any experience (or google) it's easy nowadays.

      2. Plan an invasion
      Video games. Most people can do it, few do it very well.

      3. Butcher a hog
      To some extent most people could, but pigs these days aren't the same ones from 50 years ago. Carve some edible parts from a hog? Sure, anybody hungry enough could, so long as it's not against their religious beliefs.
      Hogs in the past were

  • Why would it be objectively better for people to be either specialists or generalists? Not only is there room for both but both are required to keep the world going.
    • Generalists are preferable because there is less communications overhead for one person than for a team. A generalist can move at the speed of thought, specialists move at the speed of staff meetings.

  • by Toe, The (545098) on Friday June 10, 2011 @02:11PM (#36404368)

    ...frequently hopping from one field to another, including 'molecular biology, linguistics, physics, engineering and mathematics.

    Huh. That's exactly how I browse Wikipedia.

    I've made edits to articles in all of those fields. Does that make me a Renaissance Surfer or something? ;)

  • Reminds me of a short story by Isaac Asimov called 'The Dead Past'. A society that directs its specialists can control its development.

  • The article makes a good argument, but most of the times a generalist will get either unfocused on a specific problem cause of the lack of specialization, or more commonly, just not being understood. The latter is very, very important for a person like Aiden to be successful. And when he is successful, great things are guaranteed to happen. And that's why he's right in his argument.

    For example, I've been from theoretical physics, to oncology and medical imaging, to aerospace/control systems, to database des

  • I find funny the notion that generalists are allways the "jack of all trades, master of none", and that the specialists are the guys doing the heavy lifting on the subject.

    There are a ton of specialists, ranging from clearly incompetent or mediocre to acceptable professionals that aren't that good or specialized. Or that smart. There are some "generalists" out there that can clearly dominate multiple fields and put a lot of specialists to shame, but the usual trend is to shun "generalists" because they usu

  • ...someone who frequently hopped from discipline to discipline invented frequency hopping.
  • Specialists hated his [wikipedia.org] meddling when it challenged them. But specialists often fall in to lock step with incorrect theories for reasons that have more to do with the politics of career advancement rather than good science. (Look at the history of the theory of plate tectonics.) Generalists don't have the vested interest in succumbing to peer pressure that specialists do and so are free to explore whatever avenues of thought they think might be fruitful, free of the worry of achieving prominence in any giv

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