The Last Man Who Knew Everything

Michael Bywater in The New Statesman:

YoungAndrew Robinson’s book is the intellectual biography of Thomas Young, “the anonymous polymath who proved Newton wrong, explained how we see, cured the sick, and deciphered the Rosetta Stone” – to quote the delightful, if hyperbolic, subtitle. But before we get on to its hyperbole, our hackles are already up, bristling at the word “polymath”.

We don’t like polymaths any more. Perhaps it’s because even being a monomath is too difficult now; even specialists specialise only in a small subset of their specialty, and learning is an either/or business. The wave/particle duality of light or the practice of medicine, but not both. Making a serious breakthrough in the deciphering of Egyptian hieroglyphs or serving with distinction on the Board of Longitude, but not both. That’s the modern way.

Thomas Young, who lived from 1773 to 1829, felt no such constraints. While he may not have been the last “man who knew everything”, he made significant progress in the fields of Egyptology, optics and the physics of light, and serious contributions to many other disciplines.

More here.