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Excellence in little or versatility

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There are two types of intellectuals or experts, those who have specialised in a narrow branch of knowledge or skills and there are those who have general ability which enables them to make advances in a variety of fields that are not closely related. Both groups became famous and receive prizes. However, both groups also show weaknesses such as will be illustrated below.

Maria Sklodowska (1867- 1934), a Polish scientist better known as Marie Curie, at first studied several modern languages but concentrated on physics. In physics itself she concentrated on the study of uranium. With her French husband Pierre Curie she measured the conducting power of uranium compounds. The Curies worked intensively on exacting experiments with pitchblendo, culminating in the isolation of polonium (named after Marie’s native country) and radium. This advanced new knowledge of the nature of energy and matter. In 1903, jointly with her husband, she won the Nobel Prize for physics the first woman to win the Nobel Prize.

After the death of her husband by accident in 1903, Marie Curie developed methods of separating radium from radioactive residues. In 1911 she became the first person to receive a second Nobel Prize, this time for chemistry.

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Marie Curie was a remarkable woman for specialising in a narrow field of science. But contrast her with another great woman , Margaret Roberts who studied chemistry, law and as Margaret Thatcher became a politician ending as Britain’s first woman Prime Minister. Chemistry, law and politics are very different fields. She performed well in law and chemistry but in politics she achieved excellence. She was versatile.

Compare the two with the man the world considered the greatest scientist of the 20th Century, Albert Einstein (1879-1955). The American (by naturalisation) physist whose theories of relativity changed the way kinds understand space, time, matter and energy. He received the Nobel Prize for physics in 1921, authored several books. He had with maxims such a ‘The whole of science is nothing more than refinement of every day thinking. Science without religion is lame, and religion without science is blind.

As the most prominent Jew, the new state of Israel in 1948 invited Einstein to become its first head of state. He declined on the grounds that while he understood the laws of physics he did not understand the laws of human nature. He saved himself the ignominy of those who have specialised in a narrow field when they try something beyond their range. Of these the English great novelist of the 20th Century W. Somersel Maugham wrote in his book, ‘The Summing up’: “I have known men of affairs, who have great fortunes and brought vast enterprises to prosperity, but in everything unconnected with their business appear to be devoid even of common sense.”

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But sometimes to achieve excellence in one field you must be intellectually versatile. In his essay on the life and work, economist Alfred Marshall — the greatest economist of the 20th Century — John Maynard Keynes wrote: “The master economist must possess a rare combination of gifts. He must reach a high standard in several different directions and must combine talents not often found together. He must be mathematician, historian, statesman, philosopher in some degree — no part of men’s nature or his institution must lie entirely outside his regard.”

That is exactly what Keynes himself was like. His mastery of economics was a result of his deep knowledge in the other fields of knowledge.

Writers too have shown versatility and narrow specialisation. Shakespeare confined himself to play writing and he was so good at it that he is rated the greatest playwright of all time. Though some of his plays show that he had reed biographies and histories as his sources he never branched into this field.

H.G. Wells was a versatile writer. He graduated in biology, wrote a textbook on biology and hundreds of short stories and science novels. The book that brought him most of the money — ‘History of the World’ — was for several decades the most popular history book in the world.

People who concentrated on a small segment not only achieve excellence in a little but also become inventors and innovators. They are the people who are likely to find a cure for HIV/Aids, asthma and cancer.

Versatile people are ideal for public affairs. It is among them that a country gets state presidents and conglomerate people. Only those who have talents in several fields build nations. Unfortunately versatility is sometimes accompanied by superficiality.

To make a mark on the world scene, Africa must breed both versatile and specialist geniuses.

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