POLYMATHS: 20 LIVING EXAMPLES

A main feature for the autumn issue of Intelligent Life magazine looks at the decline of the polymath. The author, Edward Carr, argues that in this age of specialisation, the polymath has become an endangered species. For an accompanying table, we set about identifying living examples. We asked around the office, inviting nominations from the staff of Intelligent Life and The Economist. The names that came in were highly varied, overwhelmingly male, mostly Anglophone and all over the age of 45.

In the end we included only those who were reckoned to excel in diverse fields; among the scientists, we limited our choice to those, such as Roger Penrose, whose writing has attracted wide acclaim. Here is a selection of the most persuasive candidates, plus the odd wild card. We have listed their principal activities and put them in order of the number of strings they have to their bow. Don't agree with our choices? Feel free to add your own.

5 STRINGS

Nathan Myhrvold: American, 51.
Computer scientist, physicist, entrepreneur, photographer, chef

Richard Posner: American, 70.
Judge, literary critic, economist, political theorist, philosopher

Jared Diamond: American, 71.
Anthropologist, geographer, physiologist, author, ornithologist

Brian Eno: British, 61.
Musician, record producer, visual artist, political activist, diarist

Bruce Dickinson: British, 51.
Singer, TV presenter, pilot, record producer, fencer

4 STRINGS

Noam Chomsky: American, 80.
Philosopher, cognitive scientist, political activist, author

Syed al-Attas: Malaysian, 77.
Theologian, philosopher, historian, calligrapher

Raymond Tallis: British, 63.
Gerontologist, critic, poet, philosopher

Roger Penrose: British, 78.
Physicist, philosopher, author, mathematician

Umberto Eco: Italian, 77.
Novelist, medievalist, semiotician, critic

Al Alvarez: British, 80.
Poet, critic, poker player, climber

Clive James: Australian, 69.
Critic, poet, memoirist, TV presenter

Michael Frayn: British, 75.
Reporter, humorist, novelist, playwright

Stephen Hough: Australian, 47.
Pianist, poet, composer, writer on religion

3 STRINGS

Michael Ignatieff: Canadian, 62.
Historian, TV presenter, politician

Carl Djerassi: American, 85.
Chemist, author, playwright

Douglas Hofstadter: American, 64.
Mathematician, aesthetic theorist, author

George Foreman: American, 60.
Boxer, minister, grill mogul

2 STRINGS

Oliver Sacks: British, 76.
Neurologist, author

Alexander McCall Smith: British, 62.
Novelist, law professor

~ ED CUMMING

Picture Credit: beonthenet (via Flickr)