Dewey Decimal Project: 509.2 YOU The last man who knew everything: 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

The title of this book NewImageoverpromises a fair amount. I’d argue that Young is far from anonymous given his prominence in the history of physics for his demonstration that light must be a wave from the two-slit experiment (although I imagine “anonymous polymath” may refer to the fact that he published a number of his works anonymously during the 1810s). Proving Newton wrong is a bit of an overstatement in that Newton (a) wavered between the wave and particle explanation of light and (2) Newton wasn’t wrong to believe that light was a particle, as later physics revealed (all of which is not to deny the significance of Young’s experiment and the significance it had). His explanation of the eye explained not so much how we see but how we focus at different distances (and was not quite correct in the end). He had all the limitations of medical doctors at the turn of the nineteenth century and their powers as a rule did not extend to actually curing the sick. His decipherment of the Rosetta stone was only partially correct, although a strong argument can be made for his critical role in opening the mysteries of the stone and an even stronger case can be made for his work on understanding the demotic script.

But even so, a polymath’s life can make for fascinating reading, especially given the essentially polymathic enterprise underlying my Dewey Decimal project. Alas, Robinson’s writing tends a bit towards being a little dry and wasn’t as satisfying as I would have liked.

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