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:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Scotty_73

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The World According to Physics - Jim Al-Khalili *****

There is a temptation on seeing this book to think it's another one of those physics titles that is thin on content, so they put it in an odd format small hardback and hope to win over those who don't usually buy science books. But that couldn't be further from the truth. In Jim Al-Khalili's The World According to Physics, we've got the best beginners' overview of what physics is all about that I've ever had the pleasure to read.

The language is straightforward and approachable. Rather than take the more common historical approach that builds up physics the way it was discovered, Al-Khalili starts with the 'three pillars' of physics: relativity, quantum theory and thermodynamics. In simple language with never an equation nor even a diagram in sight, the book lays out what physics is all about, what it has achieved and what it still needs to do.

That bit about no diagrams is an important indicator of how approachable the text is. Personally, I'm no…

Until the End of Time: Brian Greene ***

Things start well with this latest title from Brian Greene: after a bit of introductory woffle we get into an interesting introduction to entropy. As always with Greene's writing, this is readable, chatty and full of little side facts and stories. Unfortunately, for me, the book then suffers something of an increase in entropy itself as on the whole it then veers more into philosophy and the soft sciences than Greene's usual physics and cosmology.

So, we get chapters on consciousness, language, belief and religion, instinct and creativity, duration and impermanence, the ends of time and, most cringe-making as a title, 'the nobility of being'. Unlike the dazzling scientific presentation I expect, this mostly comes across as fairly shallow amateur philosophising.

Of course it's perfectly possible to write good science books on, say, consciousness or language - but though Greene touches on the science, there far too much that's more hand-waving. And good though he i…

Jim Al-Khalili - Four Way Interview

Jim Al-Khalili hosts The Life Scientific on BBC Radio 4 and has presented numerous BBC television documentaries. He is Professor of Theoretical Physics and Chair in the Public Engagement in Science at the University of Surrey, a New York Times bestselling author, and a fellow of the Royal Society. He is the author of numerous books, including Quantum: A Guide for the Perplexed; The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance; and Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology. The paperback of his novel Sunfall is published in March 2020 by Transworld. His latest book is The World According to Physics.


Why physics?

I fell in love with physics when I was 13 or 14, when I realised not only that I was pretty good at it at school – basically common sense and puzzle solving – but because it was the subject that answered the big questions I had started contemplating, like whether the stars in the night sky went on for ever, what they were ma…