- Mass Market Paperback: 304 pages
- Publisher: Plume; Reprint edition (December 26, 2006)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0452288053
- ISBN-13: 978-0452288058
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.7 x 8.4 inches
- Shipping Weight: 4 ounces
- Average Customer Review: 25 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,210,386 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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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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About the Author
Andrew Robinson is the literary editor of The Times Higher Education Supplement.
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There's more than I ever thought there was to the deciphering of the Rosetta Stone. That part was great. True to form, Young spread himself a bit thin here (the author says so), and history doesn't give him fair credit.
In their efforts to understand how the eye works--specifically to measure its size in order to get an idea of focal lengths and such--Young and even Isaac Newton poked pointy things around the sides of their eyeballs. Eww.
The epigraph for Chapter 12 has a great quote, from Thomas Young himself: "The longer a person has lived the less he gains by reading, and the more likely he is to forget what he has read and learnt of old; and the only remedy that I know of is to write upon every subject that he wishes to understand, even if he burns what he has written."
It's a reason to write Amazon reviews. :-)
Robinson details Young's many achievements and the processes he used to get there and he also gives many examples of the criticisms made of Young and his work. Probably the most famous work of Young's is the two slit experiment in physics that shows what was (and still is) one of the most convincing proofs of the wave character of light. But, as in so many other areas, Young never followed up on that experiment. He found so many aspects of knowledge fascinating that he could not give up other intellectual interests to pursue any particular one in depth. His work on elasticity, the functioning of the eye, and the polarization of light established important foundational work in engineering and optics. More amazing then is that he had the first major insights in deciphering the Rosetta Stone. Champollion's eventual breakthrough relied on Young's work but Young never received the credit he deserves for this critical leap in our understanding of Egypt. The one thing he most consistently wanted in his life was to be a successful physician but, while he did establish a mildly successful practice, he eventually gave that up also. Young was by all indications a man not driven to gain external honors or status. He seems to have been what we might call today a "genuine" human being who knew his enormous strengths but also his weaknesses. His self-reflections are rare in history for someone with his talents. Robinson paints a sympathetic yet honest portrait of the last of the great polymaths.
This is quite simply a thoroughly enjoyable read. For anyone interested in the history of science, I highly recommend the book. You will both enjoy the writing itself and the life of this unusual 19th century version of a Renaissance man.
As Robinson himself states in the book, the biography is not meant to be a comprehensive treatment of Young's work in all of the fields to which he contributed nor does it provide an in-depth treatment of Young's work in the areas where he was most influential. Rather, it is an overview of the breadth of Young's contributions and how these contributions came to be accepted within the scientific community of the time. This is most completely described with respect to Young's work in optics (which to the acceptance of a wave theory of light) and his work in languages, most notably hieroglyphics and demotic script.
What I found most interesting about the book was the analysis of Young's character and the advantages and disadvantages he experienced in having such a broad array of interests. The author clearly shows Young's tendency to enter a field of study, make important and sometimes ground breaking advances and then to move onto to other areas. In doing so, we see Young's habit of not rigorously working through all the details or implications of a discovery and the controversy that sometimes leads to.
The book is well written with copious quotes both from Young and his early biographers. While I found these insightful, they were often lengthy and dry and required some work to plow through. I recommend this book to all those who find themselves studying a wide array of topics, those interested in either the history of physics or linguistics and those who wish to see how a person who belongs to a rare group of individuals (polymaths) works and interacts with the learned culture around them.