Physics textbooks identify Thomas Young (1773-1829) as the experimenter who first proved that light is a wave--not a stream of corpuscles as Newton proclaimed. In any book on the eye and vision, Young is the London physician who showed how the eye focuses and proposed the three-color theory of vision confirmed only in 1959. In any book on ancient Egypt, Young is credited for his crucial detective work in deciphering the Rosetta Stone. It is hard to grasp how much he knew.
Invited to contribute to a new edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, Young offered the following subjects: Alphabet, Annuities, Attraction, Capillary Action, Cohesion, Colour, Dew, Egypt, Eye, Focus, Friction, Halo, Hieroglyphic, Hydraulics, Motion, Resistance, Ship, Sound, Strength, Tides, Waves, and anything of a medical nature. He asked that all his contributions be kept anonymous.
While not yet thirty he gave a course of lectures at the Royal Institution covering virtually all of known science. But polymathy made him unpopular in the academy. An early attack on his wave theory of light was so scathing that English physicists buried it for nearly two decades until it was rediscovered in France. But slowly, after his death, great scientists recognized his genius.
Today, in an age of professional specialization unimaginable in 1800, polymathy still disturbs us. Is this kind of curiosity selfish, even irresponsible? Here is the story of a driven yet modest hero, the last man who knew everything.
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Andrew Robinson is a King’s Scholar of Eton College and holds degrees from Oxford University (in science) and the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. He is the author of more than a dozen books including four biographies: Einstein: A Hundred Years of Relativity; The Man Who Deciphered Linear B: The Story of Michael Ventris; Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye; and Rabindranath Tagore: The Myriad-Minded Man (written with Krishna Dutta). Since 1994, he has been the literary editor of The Times Higher Education Supplement in London.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Versatile people have always fascinated me as a biographer. Most recently, there was Albert Einstein, who, as everyone knows, fathered diverse new fields of science, but who also influenced some crucial areas of international politics. Before Einstein, Michael Ventris, a professional architect who in his spare time deciphered Linear B, the earliest European writing system, and became revered by archaeologists. And before Ventris, two prodigious Indians, the writer Rabindranath Tagore and the filmmaker Satyajit Ray, both of whom were intensely creative in areas outside literature and cinema.
But I must admit that Thomas Young (1773-1829), for sheer range of expertise, beats them all. Not only did he make pioneering contributions to physics (the wave theory of light) and engineering (the modulus of elasticity), to physiology (the mechanism of vision) and to Egyptology (the decipherment of the hieroglyphs), but he was also a distinguished physician, a major scholar of ancient Greek, a phenomenal linguist, and an authoritative writer on all manner of other subjects, from carpentry and music to life insurance and ocean tides. In an exhibition on Young arranged by London's Science Museum for his bicentenary in 1973, the organizers went so far as to state: "Young probably had a wider range of creative learning than any other Englishman in history. He made discoveries in nearly every field he studied".
This makes Young a tough subject for a biographer, and perhaps that is why there has not been a new biography of him for half a century. I have contemplated writing one for over a decade, since first encountering Young while researching a book, The Story of Writing, and I became further committed to the idea while writing another book, Lost Languages, on archaeological decipherment, a few years later. But having thought about the challenge, I decided it would be better to write an introduction to Young for a new audience, rather than attempting a full biography. To cover his work and life in detail and with authority is probably impossible for a single writer. This book therefore dwells only on the highlights of his polymathic career, though it aims to touch on every interesting and enduring aspect of Young.
I should like to thank the following for their help. Nicholas Wade, professor of visual psychology at Dundee, procured for me a four-volume set of the recent facsimile edition of Young's most famous work, A Course of Lectures on Natural Philosophy and the Mechanical Arts, for which he wrote an introduction. Christina Riggs, curator of Egyptology at the Manchester Museum, advised me on Horapollo's hieroglyphs. David Sprigings, consultant cardiologist at Northampton General Hospital, encouraged me to trace the post-mortem examination of Young to the library of St George's Hospital, London (where Young was a physician), and provided an expert opinion on the cause of his early death. Simon Young, son of the physiologist J. Z. Young, and great-great-great-grandnephew of Thomas Young, kindly gave me permission to reproduce his copy of the portrait of his ancestor painted by Sir Thomas Lawrence. Finally, I am grateful to my publisher, Stephen Morrow, at Pi Press, for getting excited by Young's versatility, too.
London, September 2005
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