Data Deluge Means No More Leonardo Da Vinci’s

July 27, 2011
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Think of Leonardo da Vinci and such images as “Mona Lisa” or “The Last Supper” probably come to mind. Labeled by scholars as the original Renaissance Man, Leonardo was known in his day as scientist, inventor, and artist.

Think of Leonardo da Vinci and such images as “Mona Lisa” or “The Last Supper” probably come to mind. Labeled by scholars as the original Renaissance Man, Leonardo was known in his day as scientist, inventor, and artist. And while many historians believe that a mind like Leonardo’s comes along every generation, one prominent author argues that today there’s too much information for scientists to wade through to produce anything even close to his discoveries.

Leonardo da Vinci was the ultimate jack of all trades, with expertise across many disciplines in science and art. As painter, he was known for the masterpieces listed above and also for dabbling in sketching, sculpting, writing, music, and mathematics. His contributions in science include discoveries in human anatomy, botany, astronomy, and more.

And of course, Leonardo wasn’t the only genius of the past four hundred years as Galileo, Blaise Pascal, Einstein, and even Bobby Fisher attest. So then, who is today’s great mind—that once in a lifetime cross disciplinary genius able to see the big picture? No one, says author Tim Hartford.

Harford makes the claim in a recent Financial Times article that there will never be another Leonardo da Vinci because today’s thinker is swimming in too much knowledge. The amount of knowledge available today is unparalleled in history. Harford notes that approximately 3,000 scientific articles are published each day, and the rate of scientific papers is quadrupling every 30 years. With all this information, he says, “the percentage of human knowledge that one scientist can absorb is rapidly heading towards zero.”

Leonardo lived during the Renaissance, a period of significant cultural and intellectual achievement. Harford says Leonardo was able to contribute so much because so little was known. It was possible, he says, to make significant leaps in understanding the world around us because there was much to discover, especially for someone like Leonardo who pursued a multidisciplinary approach to knowledge.

Fast forward to today: With so much knowledge available, and more produced every day, Harford questions whether there will ever be another person with the ability to learn, understand, and then forge the necessary connections to produce new insights. In short, he claims there will never be another Leonardo, not because the individuals alive today are sans the requisite brainpower, but instead because there just aren’t enough hours in the day to acquire the knowledge necessary to make significant—i.e. non-incremental—contributions.

With worldwide data volumes growing 59% a year, we definitely live in an information age of plenty. Our hope then seems to lie in the use of technology to help us separate “signal from noise” in analyzing mammoth stockpiles of social, blogs, and other data. Focusing today’s minds on data worth paying attention to is probably one of the few ways we’ll increase our odds of significant scientific advancement.

• Harford says that too much specialization in science and business means it will take us longer to make significant discoveries. Do you agree?
• Do you agree with Harford that indeed there will never be another Leonardo da Vinci?

Paul Barsch is an employee of Teradata, which sponsors the Smart Data Collective site.