Because of the sheer breadth of his expertise and his original contributions to various fields, Thomas Young must be considered one of the great polymaths. He was a remarkable man at a turning point in the history of knowledge. Physics textbooks identify Thomas Young (1773-1829) as the experimenter who first proved that light is a wave and not a stream of particles as Newton claimed. In every book on the eye and vision, Young is the London doctor who showed how the eye focuses and proposed the three color theory of vision – which was not confirmed until 1959. On the other hand, every book on ancient Egypt credits Young with his crucial work in deciphering the Rosetta Stone. He was a distinguished doctor at St. George’s Hospital in London, an eminent scholar of ancient Greek and a phenomenal linguist. His best-known work was the four-volume A Lecture Course on Natural Philosophy and Mechanical Arts. It’s hard to believe how much he knew. He really was the last man who knew everything.
Thomas Young was sent away from his parents’ home in Milverton shortly after his birth in 1773 to live with his maternal grandfather, who discovered that his grandson was a child prodigy and encouraged his eclectic interests. Very soon, at the age of two, Young became fluent in reading. Before he was four, he had read the Bible twice at the village school and at his aunt’s home. He could also recite Oliver Goldsmith’s entire poem The Deserted Village, all 430 lines of it.
Like many child prodigies, his memory was impressive. Looking back on himself as a child, Young disarmingly wrote in his autobiographical sketch: As for the qualities of mind and feelings, it may be said that I was born old and died young.
Young began his medical training in 1792 and made such rapid progress that his essay Observations on Vision was read before the Royal Society in 1793, when he was not quite 20 years old. Even more remarkable was his election as a Fellow of the Royal Society the following year, 1794. It is inconceivable that even a young man as gifted as Young could be elected a Fellow of the Royal Society on the basis of a single scientific publication.
In the early 19th century, Young demonstrated the interference of light by sending a beam of light through two narrow slits and observing the pattern the slit beam created on a screen. “Young’s Fringes” as they became known showed that light added to light can create more light; or, surprisingly, darkness. Young’s celebrated double slit has become much more than just a historically important experiment, as it can be used to demonstrate both wave and particle behavior. The double-slit experiment encapsulates, said the amazing physicist Richard Feynman, the “heart of quantum mechanics,” its “single mystery.”
Not only the physicists claim Young for themselves. Open any engineering textbook and you will inevitably come across “Young’s modulus,” a basic measure of elasticity based on the principles of stress and strain; Open any book on ophthalmology, and Young appears as the physiologist who first explained how the eye compensates for distances, the person who discovered astigmatism, and, most importantly, the first to explain how the eye opens light reacts.
No wonder, then, that Young was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society at such a young age. This was the man who, in 1816, when asked to contribute articles to a new edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, offered the following subjects: Alphabet, Annuities, Attraction, Capillary Action, Cohesion, Color, Tau, Egypt, Eye, Focus, Friction, Halo, hieroglyphs, hydraulics, motion, resistance, ship, sound, strength, tides, waves, and “anything medical in nature.” Young did not boast, he never seems to have boasted; and indeed he asked that all his contributions remain anonymous. He did not bother to point out to the editor his multilingual knowledge of ancient and modern languages and classical literature. His concern for anonymity was that in the class-conscious, relatively unscientific, quack-infested medical world of his day, Young’s dazzling range of interests outside of physiology might have given the impression of a physician not fully committed to his patients.
Young died much too young, almost 56 years old. For those drawn to the versatility of genius, Thomas Young is an inspiration. Read The Last Man Who Knew Everything, his biography by Andrew Robinson; an enchanting tale of a man who could actually claim to have been the last man to know everything except that he cared less about what others thought of him and more about the joys of an unbridled pursuit of knowledge.
Gurucharan Gollerkeri, the former official, likes to browse the myriad of ideas, thinkers and books