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Specialist Subject

In which FP gets on the telly

No blogpost yesterday, because – well, I was rather busy. Regular readers might remember this post from last week, in which I speculated vaguely about auditioning for a TV quiz show.* Those auditions, as it happened, were yesterday.

They were open auditions, so I just turned up. And, really, it was all rather painless. They weren’t busy; I sat down, answered some general knowledge questions, and had a bit of a chat about potential subjects. All very friendly. The interesting bit, though, was after I came out. “Would you mind hanging around for a while,” someone said, “the local news would like to interview people.”

Happy to oblige, I waited around, before going outside, getting miked up, and answering a few questions about what I’d just been doing. And then: “could we have some setup shots of people queuing outside the audition room?” So, the news team commandeered a corridor with a likely-looking door at the end, sat us down, and told us to try to look nervous. I found it hard not to laugh, as the cameraman zoomed in on our anxious faces from somewhere around floor-level. We acted out arriving at the audition, for the cameras, and I suddenly realised how hard acting is: how hard it is to make scripted actions feel natural.

The whole thing seemed far more complicated than the audition itself had been. And even if I don’t end up on any quiz shows, I’ve had my 2 minutes of stardom on the local news now.

* I didn’t say which one, but it was fairly easy to guess.

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Asking for advice

In which we wonder what FP knows

Or, the perils of knowing a little on a lot of subjects.

Say, hypothetically, you were considering auditioning for a popular TV quiz show, confident in your general knowledge. However, the hypothetical quiz show in question requires you to also answer questions on a few specific topics – let’s call them, for the sake of argument, “Specialist Subjects”. What sort of things would you pick, and why would you pick them?

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Jack of all trades

In which we wonder if you really can know everything

Ambling around the house the other morning with the radio on, I heard a trailer for a documentary about Denis Diderot, the French Enlightenment philosopher, writer, and general all-round expert on everything. Indeed, the trailer described him as a “true polymath”, an expert at any field he turned his hand to.

Which set me thinking: is it possible to be a polymath any more? Can you really be an expert in a huge range of fields any more, or is the field of human knowledge just too wide? If you want to be a real in-depth expert in anything, it can be a full-time job just keeping up with everybody else. You might be able to skim the surface of another field, but how can you find the time to probe it deeply? Two hundred years ago, even, it was probably barely possible. Today, it’s not – the best you can do is know how to learn things quickly.

Then again, was it possible two hundred years ago? Was Diderot himself really a polymath? A philosopher and a writer, an art critic, but a polymath? How much did he know about science? He edited an encyclopedia, but didn’t write it all. From the point of view of someone whose main field of interest is philosophy or politics, or literature, he might seem like a polymath, just because he knew more than one of those fields; but he wasn’t an expert at everything. Was being a polymath ever possible? Could you ever be a master of all trades? How far back do you have to go?

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