Thoughts about polymathy

Case in point, i’m taking a break from my reading of an introduction to relativity theory to write this post. I wrote this in a hurry becus i felt in the flow. I cleaned out the worst mistakes.

Q: How do i become a polymath?

There are various ways to learn stuff. The current method used in universities is a combination of verbal instructions and reading. One can do either in isolation if one wishes. Some people find reading too boring (i.e. they can’t keep focus) but still want to learn. Altho learning is generally much faster if one only reads, there is still hope for people to learn by listening only or nearly so.

Verbal learning

Recently there has been alot of focus on a new online learning service, Coursera. It is basically an online university where one can take classes on a wide variety (+growing) of things online for free.

There seems to be other who had have the same idea, altho with a slightly more community based system.

Other universities have been offering online courses for some time. AFAIK, these courses do not yet grant actual degrees or credit but that is just a matter of time.

One can also find alot of lectures and talks on torrent, and various video streaming sites. <- site with lots of talks about pretty much everything <- example of an author who has put alot of his lectures on a video streaming site

Non-verbal learning

As for learning by reading, there are many options. Wikipedia is obviously a great place to start pretty much any quest for knowledge. Many people think that Wikipedia is rather unreliable, but that hasn’t been the case for years. Wikipedia is surprisingly good for being written by volunteers.

Probably the best choice after Wikipedia is textbooks in ebook format (becus ebooks are free). LessWrong (another good site to learn rationality focused stuff at) has an ongoing project about discovering which is the best textbook for any given subject. That is actually a good idea since one wants to get the most of one’s time when reading.

An intermediate between textbooks and Wikipedia is something like Oxford’s A very short introduction to… series. It consists of relatively short books (100-200 pages) that introduce the reader into some new area. They are generally quite good and can be found on torrent.

Another great source of learning is following good quality blogs. Blogs are a bit like following the thoughts of an expert of some field. A good way to keep up with the recent important papers and news in a given field. A good example of such a blog is Gene Expression who writes about behavioural genetics, population genetics, intelligence research, history, and presents alot of survey data. (i subscribe to lots of RSS feeds, 9 danish newspapers, 1 meta-newspaper, 7 sites about internet, general science, and technology related news, and a bunch of other things including 5 webcomics. I will post a list of these some day on the front page)

Other great resources are other online encyclopedias and Wiki’s that focus on some more narrow subject. I will use filosofy as an example becus i have experience with this. (down as of writing)

Yet another source is lecture notes from professors. Professors sometimes put their lecture notes on the internet for free. Sometimes also their books. Some examples: <- lecture notes <- free ebook


Some background knowledge

Becoming a polymath requires autodidacticism, in some sense or another. One needs to have an intellectual drive, curiosity and be hard-working. Acquiring so much information takes time and skill. One needs to have a good filter for good, bad or useless information: some information is good, it is good for understanding things, some information is bad in that it confuses one and makes understanding things harder, some information is useless and it not good for anything besides perhaps entertainment. Examples of the three things wud be: 1) statistics, 2) social constructivism, 3) much filosofy, especially about metafysics.

The key to autodidacticism is efficiency. One may want to stop certain habits that are time-consuming and unproductive. Such habits include excessive gaming (computer or otherwise), watching television (one shud probably get rid of it), watching mediocre films and series (many people follow something like 10 series which is very time consuming).

More links <- a plan to create a university that focuses on interdisciplinary learning/polymathy. Good idea. <- a good article about the history of polymaths. Also discussing whether or not it is actually possible to be a polymath in today’s world with all the specialization going on. The author seems rather skeptical. I disagree. It has never been easier to acquire information than it is today. He is correct about specialization, but this is somewhat offset by the fact i mentioned before. There is also the effect that comes from studying many different things. One will find that it makes it easier to grasp other things that seem unrelated. Another good thing about having a broad knowledge is that one might see similarities between fields that lead to new discoveries. Similarities that others missed becus they focused on one narrow field. I think that de Grey mentions a few examples of this in his book Ending Aging (de Grey himself being an autodidact and a bit of a polymath).

Some more background knowledge about polymaths:

I notice the sex ratio immediately. I did a search for “her” and “she” and found only one female on that list. It does not say how many people are on the list, but at least hundred.

A general reason to be a polymath rather than a monomath (focusing on one thing) is that the difference in being an expert in some field of study and a master of the study has rather small practical implications. This is just to say that the law of diminishing returns holds for information in any given field. At least in general.

Leave a Reply