A polymath is a person of great and diverse learning in many different subject areas. They help teach us we don’t have to limit ourselves to being a specialist in one area of expertise. Human interest is boundless and can spill over into many overlapping and diverging pursuits.
According to James Dyson, “Having a good idea is one thing, but persuading other people to buy it is quite another. Good inventors are polymaths: they think with their hands and their brains. They’re experts in design, engineering and business.”
Maria Mitchell, an American astronomer said, “We especially need imagination in science. It is not all mathematics, nor all logic, but it is somewhat beauty and poetry.” From the classic Renaissance to modern times here are 6 polymaths to spark the imagination, and help inspire us to find our truest capabilities and potential.
Leonardo da Vinci
“Learning never exhausts the mind.” – Leonardo da Vinci
No list would be complete without the granddaddy of all polymaths, Leonardo da Vinci. The ultimate Renaissance Man, the Last Supper and Mona Lisa painter was a military architect, engineer, monument sculptor, muralist, and cartographer. His surviving notebooks and sketches show his interests and studies of subjects including invention, astronomy, botany, geology, mathematics, and anatomy. Leonardo was highly versatile and curious, he embraced science and admired the arts.
His anatomy drawings include studies of muscles, tendons, the heart’s vascular system, and the fetus in the womb. In 2001 a bridge was constructed in Norway based on one of his designs.
“Even if you’re flippin’ fries at McDonald’s, if you are excellent, everybody wants to be in your line.” -Oprah Winfrey
The Queen of all Media, multi-billionaire, Oprah Winfrey is an empire builder. First ruling the airways with her name sake talk show, she now runs OWN her own television network. Magazine publisher, spokesperson, actress, author, film and television producer, philanthropist, and founder of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa, Oprah is one of the most powerful and influential self-made women on the planet.
“I did a lot of things when I first started out. In order to be in show business, I juggled, I did magic tricks, cards tricks and I played the banjo.” – Steve Martin
Wild and crazy comedian Steve Martin has mellowed into a wildly successful actor, writer, playwright, producer, musician, award show host, and art collector.
The star of cult comedic favourites The Jerk and The Man with Two Brains, he is also a dramatic actor in movies like Shopgirl, a film he wrote the screenplay for based on his own short novel. He’s written essays, a memoir, novels, and children’s books.
Once a staple of his stand-up comedy, the banjo is something he now plays in earnest. In 2010 he won a Grammy award for Best Bluegrass album. He frequently collaborates with Edie Brickell, and in 2016 their musical Bright Star debuted on Broadway.
Hildegard Von Bingen
“Dare to declare who you are. It is not far from the shores of silence to the boundaries of speech. The path is not long, but the way is deep. You must not only walk there, you must be prepared to leap.” – Hildegard of Bingen
Sibyl of the Rhine, or St. Hildegard was an 11th century leader of nuns, poet, writer, composer, Christian mystic, and visionary.
She is the author of the world’s oldest surviving morality play. She was given permission from the pope to say that her visions were revealed to her by the Holy Spirit. Her surviving works include letters written to emperors and popes, her church sermons, musical compositions, biographies on the lives of saints, natural cures, and theological writings.
In volumes of scientific and medicinal writing, Hildegard Von Bingen wrote of flora and fauna, the human body, cures and remedies, diseases, and holistic healing.
In 2012 she was named a Doctor of the Roman Catholic Church, and the pope declared she was, “an authentic teacher of theology and a profound scholar of natural science and music.”
“When I land in a country and they ask for ‘occupation,’ I always just put ‘artist.’ I think that covers all of it.” – Viggo Mortensen
Acclaimed actor Viggo Mortensen known for his roles in The Lord of the Rings trilogy and his recent Oscar nomination for the under the radar indie drama Captain Fantastic, is also so many other things he’s almost impossible to categorize.
He is a poet, fine art photographer, musician, and abstract painter. His work has been exhibited in galleries around the world. He is the founder of the small publishing house Perceval Press. An avid sports fan, Mortensen also speaks many languages. The multilingual artist is fluent in Danish, Spanish, and French, and conversant in Italian, Norwegian, and Swedish.
“The difference between science and the arts is not that they are different sides of the same coin even, or even different parts of the same continuum, but rather, they are manifestations of the same thing. The arts and sciences are avatars of human creativity.” – Mae Jemison
As a child Mae Jemison had many dreams. One of them was to be a professional dancer, and she studied many kinds of dance including jazz and ballet. She also wanted to be a doctor. By the age of sixteen she was a Stanford University student. She graduated with a degree in chemical engineering before going to medical school and joining the Peace Corps.
In 1992 her dreams took her to the stars. Jemison became a NASA astronaut. She logged just over 190 hours in space.
A vaccine researcher, professor, doctor, public speaker, and tech company founder, Jemison also made a cameo appearance on an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Author: Tara Collum
Tara Collum lives in Toronto and grew up in Muskoka. She is the co-creator of a forthcoming web serial about twins in a small town. She believes it is never too late to be the person you are meant to be. Follow Tara on twitter @99percentsun