Books by Robinson, Andrew

Robinson, Andrew. The Last Man Who Knew Everything. New York: Pi Press, 2006. ISBN 0-13-134304-1.
The seemingly inexorable process of specialisation in the sciences and other intellectual endeavours—the breaking down of knowledge into categories so narrow and yet so deep that their mastery at the professional level seems to demand forsaking anything beyond a layman's competence in other, even related fields, is discouraging to those who believe that some of the greatest insights come from the cross-pollination of concepts from subjects previously considered unrelated. The twentieth century was inhospitable to polymaths—even within a single field such as physics, ever narrower specialities proliferated, with researchers interacting little with those working in other areas. The divide between theorists and experimentalists has become almost impassable; it is difficult to think of a single individual who achieved greatness in both since Fermi, and he was born in 1901.

As more and more becomes known, it is inevitable that it is increasingly difficult to cram it all into one human skull, and the investment in time to master a variety of topics becomes disproportionate to the length of a human life, especially since breakthrough science is generally the province of the young. And yet, one wonders whether the conventional wisdom that hyper-specialisation is the only way to go and that anybody who aspires to broad and deep understanding of numerous subjects must necessarily be a dilettante worthy of dismissal, might underestimate the human potential and discourage those looking for insights available only by synthesising the knowledge of apparently unrelated disciplines. After all, mathematicians have repeatedly discovered deep connections between topics thought completely unrelated to one another; why shouldn't this be the case in the sciences, arts, and humanities as well?

The life of Thomas Young (1773–1829) is an inspiration to anybody who seeks to understand as much as possible about the world in which they live. The eldest of ten children of a middle class Quaker family in southwest England (his father was a cloth merchant and later a banker), from childhood he immersed himself in every book he could lay his hands upon, and in his seventeenth year alone, he read Newton's Principia and Opticks, Blackstone's Commentaries, Linnaeus, Euclid's Elements, Homer, Virgil, Sophocles, Cicero, Horace, and many other classics in the original Greek or Latin. At age 19 he presented a paper on the mechanism by which the human eye focuses on objects at different distances, and on its merit was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society a week after his 21st birthday.

Young decided upon a career in medicine and studied in Edinburgh, Göttingen, and Cambridge, continuing his voracious reading and wide-ranging experimentation in whatever caught his interest, then embarked upon a medical practice in London and the resort town of Worthing, while pursuing his scientific investigations and publications, and popularising science in public lectures at the newly founded Royal Institution.

The breadth of Young's interests and contributions have caused some biographers, both contemporary and especially more recent, to dismiss him as a dilettante and dabbler, but his achievements give lie to this. Had the Nobel Prize existed in his era, he would almost certainly have won two (Physics for the wave theory of light, explanation of the phenomena of diffraction and interference [including the double slit experiment], and birefringence and polarisation; plus Physiology or Medicine for the explanation of the focusing of the eye [based, in part, upon some cringe-inducing experiments he performed upon himself], the trireceptor theory of colour vision, and the discovery of astigmatism), and possibly three (Physics again, for the theory of elasticity of materials: “Young's modulus” is a standard part of the engineering curriculum to this day).

But he didn't leave it at that. He was fascinated by languages since childhood, and in addition to the customary Latin and Greek, by age thirteen had taught himself Hebrew and read thirty chapters of the Hebrew Bible all by himself. In adulthood he undertook an analysis of four hundred different languages (pp. 184–186) ranging from Chinese to Cherokee, with the goal of classifying them into distinct families. He coined the name “Indo-European” for the group to which most Western languages belong. He became fascinated with the enigma of Egyptian hieroglyphics, and his work on the Rosetta Stone provided the first breakthrough and the crucial insight that hieroglyphic writing was a phonetic alphabet, not a pictographic language like Chinese. Champollion built upon Young's work in his eventual deciphering of hieroglyphics. Young continued to work on the fiendishly difficult demotic script, and was the first person since the fall of the Roman Empire to be able to read some texts written in it.

He was appointed secretary of the Board of Longitude and superintendent of the Nautical Almanac, and was instrumental in the establishment of a Southern Hemisphere observatory at the Cape of Good Hope. He consulted with the admiralty on naval architecture, with the House of Commons on the design for a replacement to the original London Bridge, and served as chief actuary for a London life insurance company and did original research on mortality in different parts of Britain.

Stereotypical characters from fiction might cause you to expect that such an intellect might be a recluse, misanthrope, obsessive, or seeker of self-aggrandisement. But no…, “He was a lively, occasionally caustic letter writer, a fair conversationalist, a knowledgeable musician, a respectable dancer, a tolerable versifier, an accomplished horseman and gymnast, and throughout his life, a participant in the leading society of London and, later, Paris, the intellectual capitals of his day” (p. 12). Most of the numerous authoritative articles he contributed to the Encyclopedia Britannica, including “Bridge”, “Carpentry”, “Egypt”, “Languages”, “Tides”, and “Weights and measures”, as well as 23 biographies, were published anonymously. And he was happily married from age 31 until the end of his life.

Young was an extraordinary person, but he never seems to have thought of himself as exceptional in any way other than his desire to understand how things worked and his willingness to invest as much time and effort as it took at arrive at the goals he set for himself. Reading this book reminded me of a remark by Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, “The only way to make a difference in the world is to put ten times as much effort into everything as anyone else thinks is reasonable. It doesn't leave any time for golf or cocktails, but it gets things done.” Young's life is a testament to just how many things one person can get done in a lifetime, enjoying every minute of it and never losing balance, by judicious application of this principle.

March 2007 Permalink