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A polymath is someone who has intellectual interests and expertise that crosses a number of subject boundaries. Many of the great scientists of history are, compared to today's heavy specialization in academia, highly generalist: Leonardo da Vinci is one of the West's widest-ranging polymaths, having produced great art, sculpture and writing, as well as music, acting, science, engineering, architecture, inventions and mathematics. Benjamin Franklin may also be considered one of history's great polymaths, having invented a variety of technologies, conducted scientific research and published works of political theory and been part of the American revolution.

In the United Kingdom, sometimes the term polymath is also used to refer to athletes who excel in multiple sports: Howard Baker, for instance, who competed in the high jump as well as playing cricket, football and water polo.

Often a certain practical polymath status is something that many autodidacts aim for. Many fear for the future of polymaths because of the specialization of formal education in many countries.