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The decline of the polymath

By David Herman  

Laurence Picken can make a reasonable claim to being one of the outstanding polymaths of the century. When he died last year, aged 97, the broadsheets all paid tribute. However, the best obituary appears in the annual publication of Trinity College, Cambridge, which appeared in December. Amid all the astonishing achievements and highlights of Picken’s long career, one tribute stands out:

“One of his undergraduate pupils, Roger Scruton, described him as ‘a bachelor don of the old school, an established scholar in the fields of biochemistry, cytology, musicology, Chinese, Slavonic studies and ethnomusicology, world expert on Turkish musical instruments, Bach…

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