Skip to main content

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.
Paperback:  
Review by Scotty_73

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I, Mammal - Liam Drew *****

It's rare that a straightforward biology book (with a fair amount of palaeontology thrown in) really grabs my attention, but this one did. Liam Drew really piles in the surprising facts (often surprising to him too) and draws us a wonderful picture of the various aspects of mammals that make them different from other animals. 

More on this in a moment, but I ought to mention the introduction, as you have to get past it to get to the rest, and it might put you off. I'm not sure why many books have an introduction - they often just get in the way of the writing, and this one seemed to go on for ever. So bear with it before you get to the good stuff, starting with the strange puzzle of why some mammals have external testes.

It seems bizarre to have such an important thing for passing on the genes so precariously posed - and it's not that they have to be, as it's not the case with all mammals. Drew mixes his own attempts to think through this intriguing issue with the histor…

Foolproof - Brian Hayes *****

The last time I enjoyed a popular maths book as much as this one was reading Martin Gardner’s Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions as a teenager. The trouble with a lot of ‘fun’ maths books is that they cover material that mathematicians consider fascinating, such as pairs of primes that are only two apart, which fail to raise much excitement in normal human beings. 

Here, all the articles have something a little more to them. So, even though Brian Hayes may be dealing with something fairly abstruse-sounding like the ratio of the volume of an n-dimensional hypersphere to the smallest hypercube that contains it, the article always has an interesting edge - in this case that although the ‘volume’ of the hypersphere grows up to the fifth dimension it gets smaller and smaller thereafter, becoming an almost undetectable part of the hypercube.

If that doesn’t grab you, many articles in this collection aren’t as abstruse, covering everything from random walks to a strange betting game. What'…

A Galaxy of Her Own - Libby Jackson ****

This is an interesting book, even if it probably tries to be too many things to too many people. I wondered from the cover design whether it was a children's book, but the publisher's website (and the back of the book) resolutely refuse to categorise it as such. The back copy doesn't help by saying that it will 'inspire trailblazers and pioneers of all ages.' As I belong to the set 'all ages' I thought I'd give it a go.

Inside are featured the 'stories of fifty inspirational women who have been fundamental to the story of humans in space.' So, in some ways, A Galaxy of Her Own presents the other side of the coin to Angela Saini's excellent Inferior. But, inevitably, given the format, it can hardly provide the same level of discourse.

Despite that 'all ages' comment and the lack of children's book labelling we get a bit of a hint when we get to a bookplate page in the form of a Galaxy Pioneers security pass (with the rather worrying…