An important exhibition is about to open in the UK. It features a man who was first and foremost an artist, but could also credibly claim to be an accomplished sculptor, musician, mathematician, cartographer, geologist, inventor, engineer, scientist and philosopher. I’m referring of course to Leonardo da Vinci and the Painter at the Court of Milan exhibition at The National Gallery in London, where nine of his 15 surviving works will be on show between 9 November 2011 and 5 February 2012.
Leonardo da Vinci has always fascinated me. Not so much for his art, even though he is one of the greatest painters ever to live, but more for his mastery of a bewildering array of seemingly unconnected subjects and topics. Of the many inventions Leonardo da Vinci could lay claim to, some could not be constructed during his lifetime due to manufacturing limitations. These included the helicopter, the tank, concentrated solar power, the calculator and the double hull. He also sketched parachutes that centuries later were proven to work, and designed bridges that, hundreds of years later, turned out to be perfectly engineered.
The word Polymath is often used to describe Leonardo da Vinci, and with good reason. Polymaths are able to make the mental and intellectual leaps that will solve problems and perhaps lead to civilization-changing inventions, such as the device in The Human Race that promises to reverse global warming.
Interestingly, Leonardo da Vinci may occupy another unique period in history, as he lived during a time when it was possible to know everything there was to know about the known world. This would be impossible now, what with the 3,000-odd scientific papers that are published every day. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is very unlikely that someone will ever again have mastery of everything that is now known to mankind.
Do we need to know everything?
No. But what is important is that every generation has their own Leonardo da Vinci: a person characterised by his or her innate curiosity and insatiable desire to observe and question everything. In essence, somebody who will not accept anything until they have tested the alternatives. Breakthroughs and inventions always seem to follow these people. If you have these traits, then at some point in the future you can begin to “connect the dots” to which Steve Jobs famously alluded to in his 2005 lecture at Stanford University. Things will begin to fall into place and connections will be made that would never have been possible, had you stuck to just one subject.
Like Eric Schmidt, I worry that we don’t encourage or nurture this type of individual anymore. Everyone seems so… specialised. We seem to be in such a rush to push students down educational cul-de-sacs, sometimes before they even get to university. These days, we all focus on such narrow fields of expertise from such an early age.
Does this inhibit the forming of future polymaths?
It must do and I can’t see the need for us to do this, especially as we begin to live longer and longer. Our extended lifespans are bound to encourage more free-thinking individuals to pursue several careers, hopefully in a variety of different subjects.
Perhaps there will never be another Leonardo da Vinci of our lifetime. However I hope that there will be plenty of people of his ilk. The future of the human race depends on it.