13 June 2011


RENAISSANCE MAN. In its common usage, the phrase renaissance man (or polymath) refers to "a person who is well educated and who excels in a wide variety of subjects or fields." Most ancient scientists were polymaths by today's standards, in which the pull is toward deeper and narrower specialization. One notable exception is Erez Aiden. As described in The Renaissance Man: How To Become a Scientist Over and Over Again, "Aiden is a scientist, but while most of his peers stay within a specific field -- say, neuroscience or genetics -- Aiden crosses them with almost casual abandon. His research has taken him across molecular biology, linguistics, physics, engineering and mathematics .... His approach stands in stark contrast to the standard scientific career: find an area of interest and become increasingly knowledgeable about it. Instead of branching out from a central speciality, Aiden is interested in interdisciplinary problems that cross the boundaries of different disciplines. His approach is nomadic. He moves about, searching for ideas that will pique his curiosity, extend his horizons, and hopefully make a big impact .... As an undergraduate, he studied mathematics, physics, and philosophy at Princeton .... At just 31 years of age, Aiden has a joint lab at MIT and Harvard .... He naturally gravitates to problems he knows little about. 'The reason is that most projects fail,' he says, 'If the project you know a lot about fails, you haven't gained anything. If a project you know relatively little about fails, you potentially have a bunch of new and better ideas.'"

The Discover article provides detailed and colorful examples of Aiden's work, including the study of culturonomics, solving the three-dimensional structure of the human genome, and studying the mathematics of verbs. His appetite for diverse knowledge resonates in me -- if you scroll back through weeks and months of this blog, you'll find a broad variety of topics, with certain recurring themes. As a teenager I fancied myself to be a "generalist" as opposed to a specialist. That philosophy has held throughout my life. Even my degree in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology integrates studies from many fields of science, augmented by my own forays into non-required classes in surveying, scientific illustration, women's history, et al.

Specialists make valuable contributions to our knowledge, and our functioning as a society. But in my opinion there is a special place for men and women who inform themselves in the sciences, the arts, literature, language, perhaps best summed up in the phrase "a liberal education."

MEDICARE. Paul Krugman of the New York Times is an erudite, perceptive economist who presents his thoughts clearly and forcefully. In Medicare Saves Money, Krugman takes on those, including most Republicans as well as a few Independents, seek to dismantle or disable Medicare. He asserts that our goal should be "to ensure that Americans get the health care they need, at a cost the nation can afford. And here's what you need to know: Medicare actually saves money -- a lot of money -- compared with relying on private insurance companies .... adjusting for overall inflation, Medicare spending per beneficiary rose more than 400 percent from 1969 to 2009. But inflation-adjusted premiums on private health insurance rose more than 700 percent over the same period .... By the way, we have direct evidence about the higher costs of private insurance via the Medicare Advantage program, which allows Medicare beneficiaries to get their coverage through the private sector. This was supposed to save money; in fact, the program costs taxpayers substantially more per beneficiary than traditional Medicare.

"Then there's the international evidence. The United States has the most privatized health care system in the advanced world; it also has, by far, the most expensive care, without gaining any clear advantage in quality for all that spending. Health is one area in which the public sector consistently does a better job than the private sector at controlling costs."

So the next time a Mitch McConnell or a John Behner, or even a Joe Lieberman, proposes deep-sixing Medicare, take it with a grain of salt. Chances are that those individuals have a financial vested interest in the private sector status quo. In Washington, DC, money talks. As one who just this month became eligible for Medicare coverage through disability, I'm grateful to individuals like Paul Krugman for shedding light on a complex topic.

No comments:

Post a Comment