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The Last Man Who Knew Everything: Thomas Young, the Anonymous Genius Who Proved Newton Wrong and Deciphered the Rosetta Stone, Among Other Surprising Feats Mass Market Paperback – December 26, 2006

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Product Details

  • Mass Market Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Plume (December 26, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0452288053
  • ISBN-13: 978-0452288058
  • Product Dimensions: 8.3 x 6.2 x 0.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #787,538 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The subtitle is an outline for the book's contents: Thomas Young, the Anonymous Polymath Who Proved Newton Wrong, Explained How We See, Cured the Sick, and Deciphered the Rosetta Stone, Among Other Feats of Genius. Born a half century after Newton's death, Young (1773–1829) disproved the great scientist's theory of light, demonstrating with a now-classic refraction experiment that light travels in waves. He showed how the eye is able to change its depth of focus by becoming more or less convex, and was the first to conceive the correct theory of color vision (which wasn't proved experimentally until 1959) and to accurately explain colorblindness and astigmatism. In between all of this, he was a practicing doctor and made substantial contributions to translating the Rosetta Stone. In our age of specialization, it's inconceivable that one man could make breakthroughs in so many different fields; toward the end of his life, Young wrote 63 articles for the Encyclopedia Britannica. Robinson (The Story of Writing) shines a light on this largely forgotten polymath, relying on Young's letters and writings as well as substantial works by his contemporaries to put Young's achievements in context. This thoroughly researched biography is as scattered in topics as Young's varied interests, but Robinson successfully portrays a genius who lived in a time when the fields of knowledge were fertile for new discoveries. (Jan.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


"Meticulously researched, superbly written, richly illustrated and imbued with an enthusiasm for its subject that does not flag even when analysing some of Young's most abstruse studies. This book should be cherished by all who value originality, breadth of knowledge and intellectual passion." -- New Scientist

"Andrew Robinson must be congratulated for his mastery of some dauntingly diverse material." -- Daily Telegraph

"Robinson's success in condensing his almost limitless scholarship for a general reader is commendable." -- FT Magazine

"This is a fascinating book" -- BBC History Magazine

"Young's fascinating life is detailed here in a highly readable way, revealing a man who stood by his beliefs even when the leading lights around him poured scorn on his ideas." -- Good Book Guide --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Customer Reviews

The book is well-written and should be accessible to everyone.
G. Poirier
If you are not, you will leave feeling terribly inadequate as Thomas Young was amazingly portrayed in this book!!!
M. Reid Stuart
The book is well written with copious quotes both from Young and his early biographers.
Chad Davies

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

18 of 18 people found the following review helpful By G. Poirier on April 26, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Although, as specified by the author, this is not meant to be a full biography of Thomas Young, this book certainly does give the reader an excellent perspective of the man, his many activities and his times. Any meaningful sketch of Thomas Young would need to include, amongst many other topics, some discourse on his work in physics, particularly the wave properties of light. This book certainly includes such discussions. The author has the ability to present physical principles with the utmost clarity - something that is, most unfortunately, lacking in many a scientific paper. I was not aware that Thomas Young was involved in so many fields, including Egyptology. In particular, I have always been under the erroneous impression that the deciphering of the Rosetta Stone was solely the work of Champollion; this book sets the record straight on that matter. The book is well-written and should be accessible to everyone. It would make a valuable addition to any library, particularly one leaning towards topics pertaining to the history of science.
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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful By R. Schultz VINE VOICE on October 19, 2006
Format: Hardcover
There isn't a great deal of personal, emotional information about Thomas Young, the title polymath here. But then his life was mostly in his work. And there is a lot to be learned following Thomas' investigations of a variety of scientific and scholarly subjects.

His range truly was amazing. How did people accomplish so much in previous centuries? Well, I suppose without TV to suck away time... But Thomas was exceptional even for his overachieving, turn-of-the-18th-century age. And this biography allows a reader to follow in the path of his curiosity - about how the eye works, about the nature of light, about Egyptian writing.

The biographer's descriptions of Thomas' researches into the physiology of the human eye can get pretty gruesome. These pages are not for the squeamish. Thomas often used himself as subject, probing his own eye socket to get to the bottom of things.

The section on his investigations into light is really enlightening and presents some of the clearest descriptions I've read of the split-screen diffraction experiment. This experiment was key in leading Thomas to his pioneering proposition that light is wave-like in nature.

And then the section on his work translating the Rosetta Stone was news to me! I had always assumed that ancient Egyptian hieroglyph writing was a form of picture writing like Chinese, with each symbol representing a whole word. But Thomas' break-through lay in the realization that the Egyptian symbols were actually largely like our modern English alphabet - that each symbol represented a sound, a phoneme. And so he gave us the key to reading the inscriptions on the ancient Egyptian tombs and obelisks.

The writing here is generally clear and will keep you turning page by page, tracking Thomas' investigations as he unlocks one mystery after another.
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21 of 25 people found the following review helpful By Russell A. Carleton on June 9, 2006
Format: Hardcover
If you're already intrigued by the concept of polymathy (a man who studies and works in many different subjects), were a triple major with two minors in college, or have a general interest in Thomas Young, you'll come away from this satisfied. Young's a fascinating guy, and given the task of understanding a man who worked in such varied areas, Robinson does a decent job writing his biography, or perhaps more properly, measuring and framing Young's contributions in the various subjects listed on the cover. The problem is that I don't think this book would cross over to a general audience that doesn't fit one of the above criteria. But then again, I could be wrong.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Grey Wolffe VINE VOICE on November 30, 2008
Format: Paperback
One of the problems with reading the biography (or writing) of a true Polymath, is that to really understand the man's undertakings you practically have to be a polymath yourself. Since Young's talents ran from optics to sound to medicine to magnetism to linguistics to force calculations, and it seems like everything in between, he is a difficult man to tie down. Robinson has done an admirable job of this though I found that some of the science was beyond me.

Considered a genius even by his detractors, the one problem with Young was that HE wanted to be a successful Physician but never put enough time into his practice to be successful. Young seems to be constantly running off at tangents as to what he wants to explore. Maybe the problem of his genius was that nothing (until near the end of his life) could keep his interest long enough for him to become a true expert. He has at least four theories or theorums named after him, but he never got to the real detail in many of his ideas because once he had started on a line of inquiry that proved theoretical results he went off somewhere else.

You could attribute some of his fault at non-detail to his Quaker upbringing. Quakers had little use for frivolity, ostentation or accessories. A true Quaker language would have only nouns and verbs, no reason for all those needless adjectives. In Young's writing he was consistently attacked for the 'tightness' of his writing, which sometimes
was to the point of uncomprehension. To 'protect' his medical practice he wrote many of his non-medical studies anonymously and never was one to 'blow his own horn'. Unlike most men of science from his era (like Humphry or Faraday) he was never knighted because he never campaigned for it.
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