The Last Man Who Knew Everything – Andrew Robinson ****
It may seem a rather grand claim to make, but this biography of polymath Thomas Young paints a picture of a remarkably talented man, who endeavored in fields as diverse as physics, Egyptology and physiology, making discoveries that are still being made use of today.
Young’s work in engineering and material sciences is a key part of any A-level physics course, the Young Modulus of a material determines how elastic it is and thus is a vital figure to know when building any sort of structure and what stresses it can withstand. Likewise Young’s famous double slit experiment proved conclusively that light behaved like a wave (and later allowed physicists to gain a greater understanding of how quantum theory worked), showing Newton’s ‘corpuscular’ theory of light to be wrong.
Young also made significant discoveries in the field of optics – and through a series of rather painful and slightly gruesome experiments on himself found out how the focusing mechanism of the eye works. In addition he was able to explain astigmatism, and most remarkably how the retina detects colour.
Young was also narrowly pipped to the post in deciphering the hieroglyphs of the Rosetta stone by a French rival, but nevertheless is still regarded as one of the fathers of Egyptology. As if this wasn’t enough Young wrote copious entries for encyclopedias, analyzed languages, and made contributions to carpentry, music and life insurance.
Young’s personal life is still a little shrouded in mystery. Very little remains of his letters and journals, though we know something of his Quaker upbringing from an autobiographical sketch which still exists. Robinson has done a very good job of trying to piece together what does remain of Young’s personal writing to give us a flavour of his remarkable life. Sadly Young was often mocked for dilettantism – his failure to settle on one field of study was seen as somehow circumspect by his contemporaries, possibly explaining why Young is not as celebrated as say Hooke, or Newton.
Robinson is only able to give us a tiny insight in to how Young managed to achieve so much – he includes a description of one of Young’s friends visiting him in the middle of the night, only to find him busily working on some problem, the conclusion being that Young burnt the candle at both ends for much of his life.
This is the first work on Young for nearly 50 years – so it’s a significant biography. I found it a thoroughly engrossing read; sadly a colleague of mine who is a historian found it somewhat dry when he read it! In all honesty the book probably falls somewhere between these two extremes.