When more was more

October 13, 2006

Andrew Robinson looks at the work of Thomas Young, 'the last man who knew everything', and ponders whether we do enough to reward polymathy.

If Nobel laureates are considered to be geniuses, then there are at least 100 or 200 geniuses alive today. But what about polymaths, thinkers of highly varied rather than tightly focused learning, those "know-alls" who have always posed a problem for academia? How many living polymaths can you name? When Joshua Lederberg, Nobel laureate in medicine who is studying polymathy, contacted me to ask for my personal list of polymaths, I found the challenge trickier than I had expected.

Assuming that a polymath, to qualify as such, must have wide-ranging expertise in the sciences as well as the humanities, he or she is almost certain to be a professional scientist with diverse non-scientific knowledge, rather than the converse. Noam Chomsky need not apply. In the US, only the physics Nobel laureate Murray Gell Mann, one of the founders of the Santa Fe Institute, springs to mind, and perhaps the physicist Freeman Dyson. Among Britons, there is, of course, the approved polymath Jonathan Miller, and I would be tempted to add the names James Lovelock, Arthur C. Clarke and perhaps David Attenborough (not to mention the late Francis Crick). In the rest of the world? Conceivably Claude Lévi-Strauss. Not one of the names in last year's global list of 100 leading "public intellectuals" compiled by Prospect magazine looks like a bona fide polymath, with the exception of Lovelock, although some of them might think they do. It would be interesting to know who Times Higher readers would propose.

The search for polymathy does not get very much easier if we go back to the first half of the past century. Einstein perhaps? - but he knew little of the life sciences. Freud? - but he knew little of the physical sciences. H. G. Wells? - maybe. Bertrand Russell? - perhaps he is the most likely candidate.

But go back 200 or 300 years and the situation was very different. The Enlightenment was indisputably polymathic. There were star polymaths such as Benjamin Franklin, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Alexander von Humboldt. And there was Thomas Young (1773-1829), the British physician whom the Science Museum described on his birth bicentenary in 1973 as having "probably a wider range of creative learning than any other Englishman in history. He made discoveries in nearly every field he studied."

Here are four examples from Young's amazing breadth of achievement. In physics, he proved that light must be a wave, contra Newton's corpuscular theory, by discovering the phenomenon of interference in his textbook experiment with two slits. This now forms the heart of quantum mechanics.

In physiology, Young was the first to suggest the correct explanation of colour vision with his three-colour theory of the retina. In Egyptology, Young was the first to decipher the Rosetta Stone and provided the framework for Jean-Francois Champollion's decipherment of the Egyptian hieroglyphs. In linguistics, where Young was a dazzling polyglot and a major scholar of Ancient Greek, he coined the name Indo-European for the family of languages that includes Greek, Latin and Sanskrit, after comparing the vocabulary and grammar of some 400 languages.

It was Young who prompted Lederberg's inquiry after reading my biography of Young, The Last Man Who Knew Everything , subtitled, in the 18th-century manner of wordy titles, "The Anonymous Polymath Who Proved Newton Wrong, Explained How We See, Cured the Sick, and Deciphered the Rosetta Stone, Among Other Feats of Genius". I think Young's life and work cast some stimulating light on our dearth of 21st-century polymaths.

Today, academic views of Young run the gamut from near-universal genius to dabbling dilettante. Those who appreciate him admire his range, his intuition and his far-sightedness. Those who do not, depreciate these aspects of his life and work as dilettantism, sloppiness and opportunism. The latest Dictionary of National Biography notes grudgingly: "Young was certainly highly intelligent, but he appears to have lacked the discipline and insight necessary to pursue topics in great depth."

Some great names of 19th-century science - John Herschel, Hermann von Helmholtz and John William Strutt, Lord Rayleigh - were in awe of Young. In 1931, Einstein paid tribute to him in a brief foreword to Newton's Opticks ; Einstein referred to Newton's observations of the colours of thin films "as the origin of the next great theoretical advance, which had to await, over a hundred years, the coming of Thomas Young". At the same time, Joseph Larmor, a former Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge University, wrote an essay in Nature , calling Young's 1802-03 lectures on natural philosophy at the Royal Institution "the greatest and most original of all general lecture courses".

In addition, Young was a distinguished doctor at St George's Hospital in London for nearly 20 years. Later in life, he became secretary of the Board of Longitude and superintendent of the vital Nautical Almanac and an "inspector of calculations" and physician of a life-insurance company. He was also foreign secretary of the Royal Society, and declined its presidency.

Given all this, maybe it is not surprising that, when pressed to contribute to the Encyclopaedia Britannica , Young was able to offer a unique range of articles on the alphabet, annuities, attraction, capillary action, cohesion, colour, dew, Egypt, the eye, focus, friction, haloes, hieroglyphics, hydraulics, motion, resistance, ships, sound, strength, tides, waves and "anything of a medical nature". He also wrote many biographical articles, an occupation that led him to reflect on his own intellectual motivation to a close friend: "The biographical articles seldom amuse me much in writing; there is too little invention to occupy the mind sufficiently: I like a deep and difficult investigation when I happen to have made it easy to myself if not to all others - and there is a spirit of gambling in this, whether as by the cast of a die, a calculation à perte de vue shall bring out a beautiful and simple result, or shall be wholly thrown away."

Scarcely the words of a dilettante. But, on the other hand, Young was restlessly curious. He generally moved on long before he had fully explored his intuitions and discoveries. As a result, his reputation suffered. "Whether the public would have been more benefited by his confining his exertions within narrower limits is a question of great doubt," Young wrote in an autobiographical sketch intended for a posthumous edition of the Britannica .

After his death, the president of the Royal Society could not help but echo this ambivalence towards polymathy in a valedictory address: "[Young's] example is only to be followed by those of equal capacity and equal perseverance; and rather recommends the concentration of research within the limits of some defined portion of science, than the endeavour to embrace the whole."

Whether one admires a particular polymath seems more of a matter of taste than judgment. But surely polymathy itself is something to be generally admired, not frowned upon as dilettantism or even derided as charlatanry. As Arthur C. Clarke recently said of Young: "His extraordinary life and career remind us how most of us tap only a small proportion of our full potential. It is also a cautionary tale on how society reacts to individuals who cannot be pigeonholed."

Polymaths obviously cannot be manufactured to order, but universities could do more than they do to reward polymathy as a desirable goal. "I see universities more as a place for intellectual life than as training schools. Undoubtedly, we are getting away from that," a pessimistic Attenborough told The Times Higher last year. Lovelock has often stated that he could come up with his theory of Gaia only because, as an independent scientist, he had no need to fear the ostracism of academic colleagues.

The complexity of current global issues such as climate change and terrorism may make polymathy more respectable. Moreover, online wonders such as Wikipedia are very much in the spirit of Young. In his own modest words: "It is probably best for mankind that the researches of some investigators should be conceived within a narrow compass, while others pass more rapidly through a more extensive sphere of research."

Andrew Robinson, literary editor of The Times Higher , will lecture on Thomas Young at the Oxford Museum of the History of Science on November 21. The Last Man Who Knew Everything is published next week by Oneworld Publications, £17.99.

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