Modern-Day Polymaths: Nerds of a Higher Caliber

       Depressed after reading about celebrities who are smart?  Boy have I got nothing to help you out — in fact let me make your afternoon worse by discussing the topic of modern-day Renaissance Men.  People who are good at lots of different things are called “polymaths” (rhymes with “behemoths”), and are generally not impressed by the time you finished that 5K without walking.  Of course they won’t give you the satistfaction of being jerks, so they’ll listen attentively as you recount that Angry Birds level you really nailed.  Let’s take a tour, before my self esteem gets so low I erase this entire site…

Dave Baldwin

Remember the Seattle Pilots?  Of course you don’t.  You’re reading internet blogs, so you’re young enough to think that Ty Cobb played for Arizona Diamondbacks.  (Verbally abuse your readers — the Time Blimp way…)  Dave Baldwin was a major-league reliever for the Seattle Pilots, an expansion team that played in Seattle for one year (1969) before moving to Milwaukee.  He had a solid 16 year career as a sidearm-throwing middle reliever, achieving a grand total of one base hit (by beating out a bunt), then decided to retire by GETTING A PHD IN GENETICS.  Then, a master’s in systems engineering.  And, he took up painting — one of his paintings hangs in the baseball hall of fame.  Oh, and he’s a published poet, and his autobiography “Snake Jazz” has a nearly 5-star rating on amazon.  Check out his website — I’m willing to bet he’s the only major leaguer to discuss Zeno’s paradox on his website.

Ronan Tynan

Of all the polymaths profiled here, perhaps the most likely to make you feel lousy about yourself is Ronan Tynan.  He may not immediately be recognizable to you, but if you’re a fan of the Three Tenors, you may have heard of the Irish Tenors.  Tynan made a name for himself with his stunning operatic voice as a part of this group in the early 2000′s, eventually leaving to pursue a solo career — he was later tapped to sing “Amazing Grace” at Ronald Reagan’s funeral.  He also happens to be a doctor, having worked for years in the orthopedic prosthetics industry.  Tear-jerking solo vocal performances, and helping disabled people on the side?  But wait, there’s more.  He chose prosthetics for his medical career because he himself uses them, having been born with a condition causing leg malformation eventually resulting in him having his legs amputated.  So he does all of this while managing to navigate the world on two prosthetic legs.  And how well does he navigate the world?  Pretty damn well — soon after the amputation (when he was 20), he represented Ireland at several Paralympics, winning a total of 18 medals and setting 14 world records.  Perhaps as a measure of karma for the sheer weight of Hallmark Feel-Goodness of his story, he has recently got himself in trouble with alleged anti-Semitic jokes.

George Plimpton

Picture the voice of the Whitest Person of All Time.  The most New-England-y, boarding-school-y, wine-tasting-y person you can think of.  George Plimpton was 3.6 dB whiter than that.  (For you young-uns, he was the voice of the spelling bee host in the Simpson’s episode, where he tempts Lisa with Ivy League admission to throw the bee.)  If you know him at all, you know him as a literary figure and public intellectual.  He’s the founder of the Paris Review and has been a bestselling well-respected writer for decades.  And yet he made an early career for himself by dropping mostly-unprepared into various professional sports as a journalist — he has played quarterback in preseason practices for the Detroit Lions, pitched against major leaguers at baseball All-Star games, boxed against Sugar Ray Robinson, and played goalie in an NHL preseason game.  Let’s see Wolf Blitzer do that.  Moreover (been dying to use that term, only fitting that it’s while describing Plimpton), he may have been a CIA agent — it turns out his participation in the Paris Review may have been as cover for his covertly operations.  Moreover^2, he was a college buddy with Robert Kennedy, was on-scene at Kennedy’s assasination, and in fact helped wrestle the assassin Sirhan Sirhan to the ground.  Later he got to enjoy slightly self-parodying roles here and there on TV shows and commercials whenever a stuffy intellectual character was needed, a role currently being revived ably by John Hodgman.

Jonathan Wolfe Miller

Being an American Yankee Uncultured Boor, I didn’t know much about Jonathan Wolfe Miller, who is apparently a celebrity intellectual in Britain.  I’m presuming he’s the prototype for “stuffy pretension” in jolly england, sort of the role George Plimpton plays in America.  He’s one of the most famous and well-respected theater and opera directors in Britan, despite having been trained in medicine, not music or theater.  By the late ’70s, he was a world-reknowned operatic director desipte not knowing how to read sheet music.  So the music-degree folks out there, this is one for you.  In the time since, he’s become a TV personality in Britain, hosting many documentaries and specials over the years.

Nathan Myhrvold

Myhrvold… that is a hard name to spell.  Is it Scandinavian?  Martian?  Myrhvold is semi-famous as a former Big Shot at Microsoft, the founder of Microsoft Research, their internal research group that famously pulls some of the most advanced researchers away from prestigious academic jobs.  And he’s not just DOS-prompts and animated paperclips — he has *serious* science credentials, having graduated with his PhD in physics at 23 and doing a postdoc in cosmology with Stephen Hawking.  But the reason he’s on this list is how he approaches his hobbies.  Specifically cooking.  Yes, cooking — Mryhvlod has revolutionized advanced scientifically-based cooking, advocating obscure and unconventional techniques like “sous vide”, which involves slow-cooking food in vacuum-sealed bags submerged in water baths.  (Looks as appetizing as it sounds.)  He just published a giant tome, “Modernist Cuisine”, a 1000-page monster that includes chapters on microbiology and the thermodynamics of heat transfer.  It must be worth reading, because Myrrhvuld won the world barbecue championship.  Maybe the judges decided it was better to let him win rather than check his math.  Somehow Mrhvy#s@LD also has had time to become a world-class nature photographer, and somewhere along the way picked up a master’s in mathematical economics.  Now he’s got more money than god (almost as much as Bill Gates) and funds his own lab researching whatever the hell he wants.

Douglas Hofstadter

I’ll admit to a serious scientist-crush on the Hoff.  He’s a Pulitzer-Prize-winning cognitive scientist who wrote one of the must-read popular science books of the last century, “Godel Escher Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid”.  I’ve profiled his book already at Time Blimp, over in the section on the most ambitious scientific theories in the world.  Get this — he’s a professor of cognitive science at Indiana University, with a joint appointment in computer science (impressive, but not that uncommon), but is also an adjoint professor in History and Philosophy of Science (makes sense), Philosophy (now that’s reach!), Psychology (eh?), and Comparative Literature (really?). Is there anyone else on earth who is listed on brochures from both computer science and comparative lit departments at their college? Oh, and his PhD is in solid state physics. And his first love in college was number theory.  And he fluent in many languages, even publishing his own translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin.

F. Story Musgrave

Didn’t I read that name in a Sherlock Holmes story?  Yeah, wasn’t F. Story Musgrave the reclusive baron who made the fatal mistake of underestimating Holmes?  No, he wasn’t — let’s stop making jokes about his name, or the actual F. Story Musgrave will find me and kick my ass.  The real F. Story Musgrave might be the single most impressive polymath I’ve ever come across.  Check out this curriculum vitae:

– BS in math and statistics, 1958, “in record time”
– MBA in operations analysis and computer programming, UCLA, 1959
– BA in chemistry 1960
– MD in 1964 at Columbia
– MS in physiology / biophysics, 1966
– MA in literature, 1987

Meanwhile, I’ve got three or four super-saver punch cards from Subway that I’ve never finished, dating back nearly a decade.

You might gather from this that he’s primarily a medical doctor & scientist, and indeed was a part-time professor of physiology and biophysics at the University of Kentucky.  Why part time, you ask?  His other primary profession was being a freaking ASTRONAUT.  He was in the Marine Corps during that entire span of schooling, becoming an accomplished jet pilot and parachutist.  He joined NASA in 1967, and was heading to space by the late 70′s.  Remember the first time astronauts did spacewalks, tethered to the space shuttle?  That was Story Musgrave.  Remember when they fixed the Hubble satellite telescope?  That was Story Musgrave.  Remember when Pete Rose broke the all-time hits record?  That was Story Musgrave.  For good measure he finished a master’s in literature along the way, thereby proving he could dominate any field of human endeavor.

Oh, and if you need a palm tree, he’s your man.


Other polymaths that you should look up (yes, I’m issuing commands) if you’re intrigued include Noam Chomsky, who practically invented the field of linguistics but is also famous in political and countercultural circles;  Stephen Wolfram, whose gigantic tome “A New Kind of Science” was reviewed at this very site despite us being completely unqualified to review it;  Murray Gell-Mann, a legendary physicist who is now applying physics principles to pretty much every study of human endeavor;  and Brian May, the guitarist from the rock band Queen, who recently completed his PhD in astrophysics, and whom I’m proud to say has been deemed The Man At The Center of The Universe by Timeblimp for having the lowest combined Bacon number (“six-degrees” separation from Kevin Bacon in movies), Erdos number (same deal to Paul Erdos, a famous mathematician), and Sabbath number (same to the band Black Sabbath).


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