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Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein, professors at Michigan State University, came to N.C. State on April 18 to share their research at the annual State of the Sciences event in a lecture titled “The Value of Training as a Polymath for Stimulating Creative Insights Across Disciplines.” (The event was also part of the North Carolina Science Festival, celebrated across the state throughout April — find an event near you here.)

The Root-Bernsteins focused on the issue of creativity across disciplines by examining polymaths — people of unusually broad accomplishments — like Leonardo da Vinci, who in his lifetime was a painter, sculptor, architect, scientist, musician, mathematician, engineer, inventor, geologist, cartographer, writer, botanist, and more.

“We’re going to argue that almost anyone can be a polymath without being a genius,” Robert Root-Bernstein said. He began by delving into the idea that creative individuals take on multiple interests and avocations.

“Scientists, psychologists, and even historians of scientists had re-discovered that successful people are not only more versatile … but also more accomplished at that wide range of activities,” he said.

Robert and Michele analyzed a particular group of people to prove this point — Nobel Prize winners. They found that most Nobel laureates, regardless of field, are likely to display interest and accomplishment in more than one subject area, and half had two or more other areas of interest.

Slide of Nobel Prize Winner interests. Yasmin Bendaas/EducationNC

Michele Root-Bernstein then presented on a second theme in their research: Creative individuals integrate their multiple interests. For example, Dorothy Hodgkin was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1964 for the development of X-ray crystallography to determine the structures of biochemical compounds like vitamin B12, penicillin, and insulin. In her presentation, Root-Bernstein pointed to Hodgkin’s interest in painting as inspiration for her work in crystallography. This integrative web of interests, she said, is what makes a polymath.

In their research, the Root-Bernsteins discovered another theme: There are some typical avocational patterns. They noted an unexpectedly high rate of science training and avocation among non-science Nobel laureates, with 87% of laureates in economics having formal training in science or scientific interests. Twenty-four percent of literature laureates also demonstrated strong interest in one or more sciences, along with 20% of Nobel Peace Prize winners.

As an example, George Bernard Shaw, a Nobel laureate in literature, was self-described as a “scientific biologist.” His work, “Back to Methuselah,” includes science-fiction elements, like immunity to aging.

Outside of Nobel laureates, Robert Root-Bernstein also examined the publication patterns of the top scientists in a decades-long study by Bernice Eiduson.

“The very successful scientists have very colorful publication records. They kept jumping between research areas and topics,” he said. In contrast, the lowest impact scientists interviewed for the study viewed extra activities as detractors from their main work.

This brought Robert Root-Bernstein to theme four of their research: Polymaths have a perception of connection between their interests. He shared quotes from several Nobel Prize winners who connected their work with other interests:

“Without painting I would not have come so far as a writer,” said Hermann Hesse, winner of the Nobel Prize in literature in 1946.

“The theory of relativity occurred to me by intuition, and music is the driving force behind this intuition,” said Albert Einstein, winner of the Nobel Prize in physics in 1921. 

“I can always view my hobbies as part of my research,” Herbert A. Simon, winner of the Nobel Prize in economics in 1978. Simon was also a skilled pianist, composer, chess player, and painter.

Through these examples, Root-Bernstein said that his research showed that polymathy became a deliberate strategy for creative success, and in a fifth theme, Michele Root-Bernstein shared that their research showed that polymaths also use the same set of “thinking tools” for creativity. These include observing, abstracting, body thinking, and empathizing.

She tied examples to each thinking tool: Louis Pasteur was a trained portraitist before going to college for chemistry and physics. In drawing tartaric acid crystals, Pasteur proved to his professor that there were two types of crystals present, one the mirror image of the other. As a portrait artist, Pasteur had been trained to see asymmetries in faces, and this training in observation transferred to chemistry.

As another example, physicist Jacob Shaham integrated physics and acting through the thinking tool of empathy.

“Acting taught me how to read equations like a script with characters I had to bring to life,” he said.

To close, Robert Root-Bernstein focused on the sixth and final theme of their research, that of thinking tools in professional practice and educational preparation — or lack thereof. He noted that while artists are more likely to use thinking tools like abstracting, artists and scientists are both equally as likely to use the thinking tool of observation. Because of this, he argued that an arts-based curriculum would improve STEM learning outcomes, and that visual learning would improve science and engineering abilities. This means that, to be best prepared, students should be trained to be polymathic.

A slide sharing information on the y-shaped student. Yasmin Bendaas/EducationNC

The Root-Bernsteins presented the idea of the “y-shaped student.” The y-shaped student is encouraged to major in two subjects and complete a thesis linking them both. Robert Root-Bernstein explained the visual of the “y-shape,” the student with arms up and out, signifying the student reaching out into the future and into the areas of ignorance where our knowledge fails.

“We need to train our students not only in what we know, but also what we don’t know,” he said.

“The y-shaped student is always asking why,” he added, “and also what and how and everything else.”

Root-Bernstein termed this new kind of teaching as a “whole mind education” that is designed to meet today’s challenges, and said that in order to create the y-shaped student other aspects of education would need to be changed as well.

“Creating a polymathy is a social and political good worth striving for,” he said.

Correction: This article previously listed Samuel Eiduson as the author of the Eiduson study. The author was Bernice Eiduson (his wife).

Yasmin Bendaas

Yasmin Bendaas is a Science writer.  A North Carolina native, she received her master’s degree in Science & Medical Journalism at UNC Chapel Hill, where she was a Park Fellow. She received her Bachelor of Arts in anthropology in 2013 from Wake Forest University, where she double-minored in journalism and Middle East and South Asia studies. As an undergraduate student, Bendaas gained insight into public health when she interned at the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, a statewide grantmaker focused on rural health, including access to primary care, diabetes, community-centered prevention, and mental health and substance abuse. 

As a journalist, Bendaas has been funded twice by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting for fieldwork in Algeria — first to cover a disappearing indigenous tattoo tradition, and again to look at how climate change affects rural sheepherding practices.