Home Opinion For the love of Pythagoras and Polymaths, By Osmund Agbo

For the love of Pythagoras and Polymaths, By Osmund Agbo


Though I studied medicine and was never really a science buff, I remain in awe to this day of Algebra, Calculus, Theoretical Physics and Quantum Mechanics. I am fascinated by the great Greek mathematicians of yore, from Archimedes to Theaetetus, Euclid and yes, Pythagoras of Samos who is also a philosopher and the eponymous founder of Pythagoreanism. Oh my Pythagoras! The Pythagorean theorem, a beacon of inspiration that ignited my passion for maths during the glorious ’80s, when intellect was held in high regard.

You see, I was never good at math starting out. In fact, at that time, I wasn’t good at anything. Growing up, all I wanted to do was play, and my entire life revolved around having fun. When I wasn’t horsing around with my childhood best friend, Jerome, we would find a tree to climb during school recess, engaging in who knows what, blissfully ignorant of the school bell signaling the end of our carefree interlude. Even my father’s strict discipline couldn’t deter me from reveling in the joyous moments of childhood. Perhaps being born to parents who were already weary and aged played a part in their inability to notice my truancy.

It’s true that no crime goes unpunished. I ended up flunking Primary Three and had to repeat that class. I still remember it clearly because I was totally ashamed of myself and avoided any contact that might bring it up or anyone likely to ask about it. You know, children too experience the heavy cloak of shame. Yet, it was during this pivotal moment, this epiphany, that the trajectory of my life changed irrevocably. The thorough and harsh dressing down by my older siblings compounded my feelings of shame. I felt utterly worthless. Right then and there, I swore to know better and to do better.

During the subsequent holiday, when the weight of failure loomed over me, I sought solace. Determined to conquer mathematics, my weakest subject, I sought the guidance of a brilliant individual, much my senior who has remained a close friend up till this day. He generously took me under his wing and meticulously unraveled the mysteries of numbers.

Empowered by his mentorship, I couldn’t contain my eagerness to display my newfound mathematical prowess. When school resumed, to the astonishment of all, I emerged as the new prodigy of mathematics. Fellow students flocked to me with perplexing problems, and nothing compared to the exhilaration of conquering each mathematical enigma.

A transformation occurred within me, permeating every facet of my academic life. Not only did I vanquish mathematics, but I also triumphed in all other subjects, achieving remarkable success in every test. However, it was mathematics that infused me with newfound confidence, an unwavering reminder of my journey from self-doubt to triumph.

Back to Pythagoras and his Greek compatriots. Although primarily a mathematical concept, the principles of the Pythagorean theorem can be metaphorically applied to life in a broader sense. It emphasises balance and equality as crucial for the overall well-being and harmony of humans. Just as the theorem states that the squares of the two shorter sides must add up to the square of the hypotenuse for equilibrium, finding a balance between different aspects of life, such as work and personal life, relationships, health, and self-care, is essential for living a fulfilling life, something that many of us struggle with every day.

In relationships, the Pythagorean theorem emphasises the idea that the strength and stability of a connection depends on the balance between two individuals. Each person brings their unique qualities (the two shorter sides) to the relationship, and when combined, they create a harmonious and supportive bond (the hypotenuse).

In the area of personal growth, it implies that we embrace different aspects of oneself. The Pythagorean theorem teaches us about problem-solving and how to find solutions. In life, we face challenges and problems that require creative and logical thinking to solve. Similar to how the theorem provides a method to determine the length of an unknown side in a right-angled triangle, we can apply problem-solving skills to analyse situations, gather information, and find solutions to the obstacles we encounter.

The Pythagorean theorem was a significant discovery in the field of mathematics. It highlights the value of curiosity and the pursuit of knowledge. It taught us that life is a continuous learning process, and exploring different areas of knowledge, gaining new skills, and seeking understanding can lead to personal growth and a deeper appreciation of the world around us.

The convergence of science and art is evident, as we navigate the vast ocean of knowledge. Within its depths, we find intersections that require a comprehensive understanding of various aspects of human endeavors—a polymath, if you will. While it is impossible to become an expert in every field, focusing solely on one’s own profession, such as being a doctor, may leave one ill-prepared to face the complexities of our world.

Leonardo da Vinci, renowned as the greatest artist, left an indelible mark in the realm of science. His contributions were revolutionary and far-reaching. He famously said, “To develop a complete mind: Study the science of art; Study the art of science.” From dissecting corpses to conceptualising flying machines, his exploration of anatomy and perspective influenced iconic works like the Mona Lisa (1503–19) and The Last Supper (1495–98). The Da Vinci Robot used for minimally invasive surgical procedures today, was named after him.

Galileo Galilei, the Italian scientist whose work revolutionised our understanding of the natural world and paved the way for the scientific advancements in physics and astronomy, was not only a man of science, but also an accomplished artist. Albert Einstein once remarked, “After a certain high level of technical skill is achieved, science and art tend to coalesce in aesthetics, plasticity, and form. The greatest scientists are always artists as well.”

I vividly recall a captivating inaugural lecture delivered by the esteemed Professor of pathology from the University of Nigeria, W.I.B Onuigbo during my time in medical school. The title of his remarkable masterpiece was “Historical Hints on Humaneness.” While the exact words of his speech elude my memory, what remains etched in my mind is the enchanting manner in which he crafted each sentence. In an era preceding the internet revolution, Professor Onuigbo’s words flowed with such elegance that they resembled a mesmerising poem.

Onuigbo stood as a true embodiment of a scientist steeped in the traditions of classics, liberal arts, and humanities—an emblem of a bygone era. Regrettably, today we witness the presence of university professors who struggle to construct a single grammatically correct sentence, despite living in an age where knowledge is readily accessible at our fingertips.

So, the next time someone labels this medical doctor as a journalist manqué, I will swiftly remind them of the humbling accomplishments of Galileo Galilei, Leonardo da Vinci, and, of course, Pythagoras of Samos. Men whose contributions span across various knowledge verticals.

Osmund Agbo writes from Houston, Texas. Email: [email protected]

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