He saw all that there was to see

Thomas Young's Life and Works
July 2, 2004

Thomas Young (1773-1829), the subject and author of these four immaculately reprinted 19th-century volumes, is not a household name like Newton, Faraday or Darwin. Yet he is one of the greatest polymaths who ever lived.

As a Science Museum exhibition on Young held in 1973 noted: "He probably had a wider range of creative learning than any other Englishman in history."

Open any physics textbook and you find his name as the experimenter who first demonstrated the interference of light (Young's fringes) and hence proved that light is a wave, not a stream of corpuscles as generally maintained by Newton. Open any engineering textbook and you find Young's modulus, a fundamental measure of elasticity derived from Hooke's law, equal to the ratio of the stress acting on a material to the strain produced. Open any book on the eye and vision and he is there as the physician who first explained how the eye accommodates (focuses), and as the man who discovered the phenomenon of astigmatism and who first proposed the three-colour theory of vision (confirmed experimentally only in 1959).

Finally, open any book on ancient Egypt, and Young is credited for his pioneering linguistic detective work in deciphering the Rosetta Stone and the hieroglyphic script.

"Physicist, physician and Egyptologist", the encyclopedias label Young.

Physics was his forte, physic his profession, Egyptology his penchant. But his expertise extended well beyond these vast (even in his day) fields of knowledge. At the age of just 21, on the strength of his first scientific paper, he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society; in 1802, because of his polyglot knowledge and his travels in Europe, he became foreign secretary of the society. (Near the end of his life, he declined the presidency.) While not yet 30, as professor of natural philosophy at the newly founded Royal Institution he gave a course of lectures covering virtually all of science, which has never been surpassed in scope and boldness of insight.

The only really accurate label for Young, apart from the overworked "genius" (a word frequently applied to him by scientists, such as Helmholtz, Rayleigh and Bragg) has to be "polymath" - or perhaps "Phenomenon" Young, his Cambridge University nickname (half admiring, half derisory) when he was a medical student in the 1790s.

This was a man who, invited to contribute to a new edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica , 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 was not boasting; for example, regarding annuities, Young was a well-paid "inspector of calculations" for the Palladium Insurance Company (later Eagle Star); regarding ships, he was an adviser to the Admiralty on methods of shipbuilding, secretary of the Board of Longitude and a controversial superintendent of the vital Nautical Almanac . He did not bother to mention his admired scholarship in Latin and Greek (which helped him with the Rosetta Stone).

In the event, he wrote for the Britannica on many of the above subjects, plus bathing, bridge, carpentry, double refraction, fluents (integrals), Herculaneum, languages, life preservers, roadmaking, steam engine, and weights and measures - as well as numerous biographies of eminent scientists and others. His three articles on Egypt, languages and tides were far more than surveys of existing knowledge; they broke new ground, such as his coining of the term Indo-European after comparing 400 languages. And - a peculiarity of Young - every one of his contributions was anonymous: he feared that if he made public his multifarious scientific interests they would scare away patients from his medical practice.

His instinct here was sound for, despite becoming a physician at a leading London hospital, Young never acquired the practice his scientific reputation should have warranted. He did not advocate the vigorous medical treatments - copious blood-letting and so on - favoured by his contemporaries. And he lacked the genial "bedside manner" of the successful consultant physician, perhaps because he was more interested in diseases than patients.

Nevertheless, Young was an appealing human being, not an inhuman recluse like some influential scientists. He was a lively, occasionally caustic letter-writer, an accomplished horseman, a respectable dancer, a tolerable versifier and, above all, a social being at the vortex of life in London and Paris, the intellectual capitals of his day.

His achievements and personality are well captured in physicist (and dean of Ely) George Peacock's 1855 Life of Thomas Young (volume one of this reprint). Most of his important writings (but not the Royal Institution lectures he published in 1807) appear in the other volumes, a reprint of Young's Miscellaneous Works (also 1855) edited by Peacock (volumes two and three on science) and John Leitch (volume four on languages and hieroglyphs). The set - out of print for well over a century - although expensive, is an essential source for research on 19th-century science for libraries specialising in the history of science.

Andrew Robinson, literary editor of The Times Higher , is the author of Earthshock and The Man Who Deciphered Linear B .

Thomas Young's Life and Works

Author - George Peacock
Publisher - Thoemmes Press / Continuum
Pages - Four volumes 2,362
Price - £375.00
ISBN - 1 85506 972 5

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