Public lectures on science and polymathy

Tickets are now on sale for the Royal Institution evening public lecture series on polymathy and science, chaired by Oliver Morton, Chief News and Features Editor of Nature. The programme is run by Sara Abdulla, Editor of Nature Networks and publisher of Macmillan Science books. All are welcome.
Two lectures on great polymaths in March and April will be followed by a debate in May about whether interdisciplinarity is alive, dead, possible, desirable, vice or virtue.

March 21: Andrew Robinson on Thomas Young: ‘The last man who knew everything’
April 18: John Whitfield on D’ Arcy Wentworth Thompson: ‘The last man who read everything’
May 16: Panel debate: What happened to the polymaths

Venue: The Royal College of Surgeons of England, 35–43 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London WC2A 3PE, UK.
Tickets: http://www.rigb.org ; (+44) 0 20 7409 2992
Details: 7-8.30 p.m. Price £8 (£5 for Ri Members, RCS Fellows/Members and concessions). You can book for all three of the Polymaths Series events at the special price of £20 (£12 Ri Members, RCS Fellows/Members and concessions).

This post is also on Nautilus, the Nature Publishing Group blog for authors.

2 thoughts on “Public lectures on science and polymathy

  1. My experience of interdisciplinarity as a literature Ph.D. was its misuse. When I was studying lit. in the mid-’80s, my professors were enamored of Marxist theories which no longer existed anywhere in the real world, theories of culture (Levi-Strauss) deemed marginal in their own field, or other theories positively discredited in their fields (I’m forgetting now the linguist who was all the rage — some guy from early 20th century — who wasn’t considered viable in his own field, but was beloved of lit. theorists). My brother is an anthropologist (ethnobotanist really — he *is* interdisciplinary) and he clarified for me the role of Claude L-S in his field, which was nothing compared to L-S’s (inflated) role in literary studies of the ’80s & ’90s.
    My main impression of interdisciplinarity, was that, though revered, it often did not garner good results because the person trying to wield the fields really only knew one of them well. The other was just tossed in to support a theory, or add some spice, some seeming freshness via another field’s terminology (back in the late ’80s & ’90s, “interdisciplinarity” was the key word in calls for papers, articles in major journals, so most students trying to publish rather than perish tossed something in).
    Of course the best example of how little the literature theoroids knew about other fields is the “Sokal Hoax.” That wonderful article by a tongue-in-cheek physicist made fools of the supposedly brilliant lit. crit. journal editors who published it.
    I miss the age of the polymaths — the age of Diderot, Franklin, the philosophes. Nowadays, people seem to know more and more about less and less.
    Sorry for the rant, Maxine. I worked until 2:30 a.m. and now wired up on noontime caffeine!

  2. I think interdisciplinarity is different in the physical and social sciences, Susan. I believe that Sokal was poking fun at those SSC people (“science as a social construct”) == they annoy me too, as they don’t do any science but think themselves qualified to pontificate on its importance, in a flabby way so that you can’t get hold of their arguments. I believe that was the point Sokal was making in his spoof article.
    The basic sciences are struggling with these topics in an era of vast quantitites of data, increasing specialism and increasing need to communicate to the public (taxpayer) the “value” of their work. The public can see, for example, that pharmacogenomics (the productoin of drugs from the genome sequences of a few years ago) has not “worked”. How can scientists convice the public and politicians (especially where pork barrels/earmarks are around) of value. “Polymathy” to my mind, is a noble attempt to synthesise increasingly complex data-based science into something that is more generally meaningful to the non-scientifically educated.
    I agree with you on all that Levi-Strauss stuff. When I was an undergraduate I worked vacations in the social/anthropology section of a famous bookshop, and used to read some of that stuff when business was slack. Personality cult stuff rather than anything very empirical. Non sequitur, but that’s when I first came across Arianna Stasinopolous as she then was (now Huffington) — her first bursting on the public eye was some cod sociology book or other. She’s reinvented herself a few times since then.

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