In our age of narrowly focused specialization the impression is that the polymath—a person with wide-ranging knowledge and broad interests—has been totally overshadowed by the highly technical, career-driven individual. In fact, the term “Renaissance person” itself, often applied to Leonardo da Vinci, seems to suggest such people no longer exist. Having spent the past four years investigating human curiosity, however, I discovered that people with a burning curiosity and a passion for exploration, experimentation and investigation do exist—and they are fascinating. What drives these free spirits? What makes someone want to master two, three or more disciplines? Is there a way the rest of us can stimulate, acquire or nourish that kind of curiosity? Here is one example of a polymath I interviewed for my book, Why?: What Makes Us Curious.
Brian May is the famously poodle-haired lead guitarist of the rock band Queen, and the composer of such megahits as “We Will Rock You,” “I Want It All,” “Who Wants to Live Forever” and “The Show Must Go On.” Believe it or not, he also holds a PhD in astrophysics from Imperial College London; was the chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University from 2008 to 2013; is a science team collaborator on NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto; is an avid collector of and an expert in Victorian stereo photography; and is a passionate activist promoting animal rights.
I was curious to know what path led May to being so eclectic, so I started by asking: “Why did you become a musician after having completed your bachelor’s degree in physics?”
May did not hesitate: “It was a call. I loved physics and astronomy, and the fact that I studied those subjects pleased my parents. But the call of music was so strong I couldn’t resist it. I was also afraid that if I didn’t respond, it would never come back.”
This answer naturally led to an even more intriguing question: “Why then did you decide to do your PhD studies in astrophysics after decades in music?” To be clear, May registered for his doctoral degree after an interruption of 33 years!
“That was a very fortunate thing…even though I kept my interest in astronomy…. I didn’t think that was possible but I mentioned it in an interview and suddenly I got a phone call from the head of the astrophysics group at Imperial College. He told me that if I was serious, he would be my supervisor.” May laughed, “Being famous does open doors.” After a brief pause he added: “This was not easy. You have to reenergize those parts of your brain you haven’t used for a long time.”
“Do you see any connections between your interests in music and in astrophysics?” I asked.
May replied promptly: “I think that my abilities in each field were definitely enhanced by my openness to the other field. I don’t think that science and art need to be separate…. I know now many scientists [he mentioned the head of a European space mission as an example] who are very interested in music.”
I couldn’t agree more, but there was still one huge puzzle: “Why did you agree to become chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University?”
May laughed. “Because I was curious. I had no idea what would be involved and I decided to check it out. I was also wondering if being a chancellor changes you. The answer, by the way, is no! It doesn’t.”
I found it fascinating that similar attitudes characterized other prodigiously curious people I have interviewed. They all seemed to possess a certain openness to recognizing and getting excited by unfamiliar problems and challenges, even in entirely new domains. May’s vigorous activism for animals is an excellent case in point. Physicist and author Freeman Dyson provides another example. In an interview to Quanta Magazine a few days after his 90th birthday, Dyson revealed that he had taken on a new task: to formulate a mathematical model for effective clinical trials with minimal loss of life. How is that for maintaining one’s intellectual energy?
University of Chicago psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is known for his studies into the nature of creativity. Drawing on nearly 100 interviews with creative people in many disciplines, he concluded: “If being a prodigy is not a requirement for later creativity, a more than usually keen curiosity about one’s surroundings appears to be. Practically every individual who has made a novel contribution to a domain remembers feeling awe about the mysteries of life and has rich anecdotes to tell about efforts to solve them.”
Indeed creative individuals often borrow schemes and concepts from one field and transpose them into another. Charles Darwin, for instance, came up with the notion of gradualism—the idea that evolutionary changes span hundreds of thousands of generations—after understanding how geologic action shapes Earth’s surface. George Lucas borrowed from sources as diverse as the American Western lore, Greek mythology and even the ideologies of totalitarian regimes to create the epic Star Wars saga.
All of these realizations argue for a reevaluation of a novel version of the “Renaissance person.” Just as abandoning the dogmatic pretension of knowledge that characterized humanity during the Middle Ages and replacing it with curiosity ushered in a new way of life, recognizing the value of broad knowledge can inspire and generate creativity in the modern world.
Does this mean we should give up on specialization? What about those 10,000 hours or so that we are supposed to invest in a topic in order to become experts? Those should be respected. Brian May was and remains a virtuoso musician. Dyson is still primarily known for his achievements in fundamental physics. With humans living longer then ever before, however, there is sufficient time for people to be both experts and Renaissance characters.
As the celebrated physicist and Nobel laureate Richard Feynman once put it: “I am always looking, like a child, for the wonders I know I’m going to find—maybe not every time, but every once in awhile.”