Versatile minds can conjure different patterns at the same time. Such minds can think and express diverse topics at a given point of time. It is the working of their minds that is so special, so unique. The greatest specimen of versatility known in human history, Leonardo Da Vinci hardly left anything untouched. That he painted the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper are but footnotes at the end of a rather long treatise on his intriguing intellect. There is hardly any field that his stupendous talent did not master and express with unsurpassed excellence.
Let us take the case of the famous Victorian Mathematician Lewis Carroll as he is known throughout the literary world. The creator of the peerless and ageless Alice in Wonderland way back in 1865 was born Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. He was an eminent mathematician who once stunned Her Majesty Queen Victoria by sending her a book on mathematics when she was expecting something more comprehensible and humorous. That Carroll ventured into the abstract world of mathematical science coupled with his sojourns to the world of imagination is quite remarkable. Here was a man writing on the imaginary Snark and the Boojum, giving English literature words like Jabberwocky and Thing-um-a-jig and simultaneously delving into the complexities of mathematics. He was also an Anglican Cleric pained by the torments of sickness and seeking to the Almighty supplication for untold sufferings. The book that he wrote on Alice’s adventures and its brilliant sequel will go down in history as the most famous works for children read by people of all ages across all generations. Think of the Mad Tea Party and images of the Mad Hatter, March Hare and the sleepy caterpillar will spring forth in our minds and produce streams of joy. Or, for that matter, his memorable poem The Walrus and the Carpenter which opened thus:
The sun was shining on the sea,
Shining with all his might:
He did his very best to make
The billows smooth and bright —
And this was odd, because it was
The middle of the night.
The moon was shining sulkily,
Because she thought the sun
Had got no business to be there
After the day was done —
“It’s very rude of him,” she said,
“To come and spoil the fun.”
Surely, the following lines are nothing short of sheer brilliance –
The time has come,’ the Walrus said,
To talk of many things:
Of shoes — and ships — and sealing-wax —
Of cabbages — and kings —
And why the sea is boiling hot —
And whether pigs have wings.’
Carroll wrote nonsense poetry in a narrative style that redefined the very concept of nonsense literature. His astounding poem The Hunting of the Snark is all suspense and, yet, full of droll. That there cannot be any Snark is well concealed by the thrilling narration in this multilayered poem on death and hidden danger. Carroll gave us new waves of thought and new words to dwell upon.
We had in GH Hardy another great mind who was obsessed with cricket. Hardy was one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th Century, a masterful original mind who gave us great things. Indians will also remember him as the soul who took the prodigious Ramanujam under his tutelage and took him to London. Hardy was as much in love with Mathematics as he was of the exploits of Bradman and Hobbs on the cricket pitch. Indeed, he is said to have remarked to his sister “If I were to die today, I would still like to know the cricket scores.” Taking a walk around his beloved Oval was his favourite pastime. He was, mind you, the man behind the number theory and mathematical analysis, Waring’s problem and the Hardy- Littlewood circle, amongst other things. He will also be remembered for his collaborations with Ramanujam giving rise to the Hardy- Ramanujam asymptotic formula. Yet, this remarkable mind loved talking of the finer points of the game, the tactical aspects as well as the techniques of great batsman with equal ease. He even thought of writing a book on cricket which, sadly, did not materialize. However, cricket and maths mingled in his great mind to create a delightful concoction. The sheer power of assimilation and expression reached a high point in his famous book, A Mathematician’s Apology which is neither really a book on his works nor really an autobiography but which encompasses both. The initial lines of this great book are significant where Hardy feels melancholy to write about mathematics himself. Sums up the man and the great brain between those keen ears!
In an age of specialization and blinkered minds, it is inconceivable that a De Vinci will be reborn to astound us with versatile talents. The likes of Carroll are a part of history; it is generally true that a substantial number of great minds in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were humans with diverse traits and all-pervasive interests. There are reasons I do not wish to dwell upon. It is, however, true that great minds of the past have always relaxed with studies on and passion for other subjects. A case of sublime intellect.