Friday, November 12, 2010

The last men who knew everything

The last men who knew everything
By Beat A Schwendimann

Can a single person know everything? Was there ever a person who knew everything? Several people in history were called "The last man who knew everything":
Athanasius Kirchner
Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680), a German Jesuit, occultist, and polymath was one of most curious figures in the history of science. He dabbled in all the mysteries of his time: the heavenly bodies, sound amplification, museology, botany, Asian languages, the pyramids of Egypt -- almost anything incompletely understood. Kircher coined the term electromagnetism, printed Sanskrit for the first time in a Western book, and built a famous museum collection. His wild, beautifully illustrated books are sometimes visionary, frequently wrong, and yet compelling documents in the history of ideas.

Thomas Young
Thomas Young, a Polymath who proved Newton wrong, explained how we see, cured the sick, and deciphered the Rosetta Stone. Born a half century after Newton's death, Young (1773–1829) disproved the great scientist's theory of light by demonstrating with a now-classic refraction experiment that light travels in waves (and not as particles). He showed how the eye is able to change its depth of focus by becoming more or less convex, and was the first to conceive the correct theory of color vision (which wasn't proved experimentally until 1959) and to accurately explain colorblindness and astigmatism. In between all of this, he was a practicing doctor and made substantial contributions to translating the Rosetta Stone. Young wrote 63 articles for the Encyclopedia Britannica on a wide variety of subjects such as Alphabet, Annuities, Attraction, Capillary Action, Cohesion, Colour, Dew, Egypt, Eye, Focus, Friction, Halo, Hieroglyphic, Hydraulics, Motion, Resistance, Ship, Sound, Strength, Tides, Waves, and anything of a medical nature.

Joseph Leidy
Philadelphia scientist Joseph Leidy (1823-1891) was a remarkable polymath: Master anatomist, microscopist, scientific illustrator and pioneer of protozoology and forensic medicine, Leidy in 1858 described and oversaw the assembly of a 28-foot, duck-billed, herbivorous Hadrosaurus, the first reasonably complete American dinosaur ever brought to light - a sensational feat that launched the nation's love affair with dinosaurs. Leidy's discovery in 1846 of Trichina larvae (the parasite that causes trichinosis in humans) in pigs earns Warren's accolade as a milestone in public health.

Could there still be a person who knows everything today? Probably not. For two reasons: First, the amount of knowledge in the world has doubled in the past 10 years and is doubling every 18 months according to the American Society of Training and Documentation (ASTD). Half of what is known today was not known 10 years ago (Gonzales, 2004). Second, the half-life of knowledge is continuously shrinking. The half-life of knowledge is the time span from when knowledge is gained to when it becomes obsolete. For education, it means that formal education can no longer cover all there is to know but needs to prepare students for autonomous life-long learning.

While there will probably never again be a person who knows everything, there is still the possibility of becoming a polymath: Polymath, also called Renaissance man or Homo Universalis, describes a person who excels in a wide variety of subjects or fields (but not everything). Wikipedia lists a number of people who were considered polymath.

Buckminster Fuller
The Wikipedia lists above omits one of my personal heroes: Buckminster FullerBuckminster Fuller spent his life working across multiple fields, such as architecture, design, geometry, engineering, science, cartography and education. Fuller developed a system of holistic thinking called Synergetics. Fuller suggested looking at planet Earth as a spaceship and humanity as its crew. His goal was to make make sure that all crewmembers of spaceship earth get what they need to life. Under his design framework Dymaxion, he developed geodesic domes as efficient forms of shelter, a new type of energy-efficient car, and pre-fabricated houses. The chemical molecule structures Fullerenes (or Bucky balls) were named after him (and his geodesic dome structures). Fuller coined the now widely used term "synergy". Find information about exhibitions on Fuller's work here.

Fuller even had a theory why we find increasing specialization in today's world. In his interesting book "Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth", multi-talend Buckminster Fuller describes the origins of specialization: According to Fuller, people in power (who Fuller calls 'The Great Pirates') deliberately divided education into distinct disciplines to keep other people from ever realizing the full picture. People becoming specialists in ever more narrow fields are useful to the people in power without their specialized knowledge becoming a threat to them.

On the positive side, academia increasingly realizes the limitations of departmental structures and creates cross-disciplinary centers. In my view, education should focus more on cross-cutting themes instead of constraining itself by artificial disciplinary boarders. Collaborative project-based learning provides good opportunities to bring knowledge from different fields together and, in Fuller's words, find synergies.


  1. I like your Blog Beat!
    Though one thing about this issue: Even though Young proved Newton wrong, Newton was right as well. Light can --depending on the type of experiment that is performed-- behave as a wave (e.g. refraction experiments) or a particle (e.g. photoelectric effect).
    It is correctly described by quantum electrodynamics which contains both types of behaviour (in different limits..)

    By the way, Bertrand Russell is one of my favorite polymaths, as well as Alexander Borodin, who was a famous composer and a famous chemist.

    Greetings from Berlin,

    Thomas Isele

  2. I love the scope of this post! But I wonder if none of the individuals cited knew "everything". I assume by "everything" you mean everything that was known. For example, Aristotle was probably unaware of Buddism as well as some early Chinese developments not to mention cultural, geography, and science of native Americans.

    What I like about Wikipedia's list is that it shows that comprehensive interests is a phenomena that is still alive and well.

    Also note that Fuller did not coin "synergy" but he did popularize the term.

    A few weeks ago, I put out a blog post on Buckminster Fuller and the Open Educational Resources Movement that you may find interesting.

    CJ Fearnley

  3. Other last men to know everything are Erasmus, Leibniz and Alexander von humboldt

  4. Other last men to know everything are Leibniz, Von Humboldt and Erasmus