Skip to main content

The Last Man Who Knew Everything – Andrew Robinson ****

It may seem a rather grand claim to make, but this biography of polymath Thomas Young paints a picture of a remarkably talented man, who endeavored in fields as diverse as physics, Egyptology and physiology, making discoveries that are still being made use of today.
Young’s work in engineering and material sciences is a key part of any A-level physics course, the Young Modulus of a material determines how elastic it is and thus is a vital figure to know when building any sort of structure and what stresses it can withstand. Likewise Young’s famous double slit experiment proved conclusively that light behaved like a wave (and later allowed physicists to gain a greater understanding of how quantum theory worked), showing Newton’s ‘corpuscular’ theory of light to be wrong.
Young also made significant discoveries in the field of optics – and through a series of rather painful and slightly gruesome experiments on himself found out how the focusing mechanism of the eye works. In addition he was able to explain astigmatism, and most remarkably how the retina detects colour.
Young was also narrowly pipped to the post in deciphering the hieroglyphs of the Rosetta stone by a French rival, but nevertheless is still regarded as one of the fathers of Egyptology. As if this wasn’t enough Young wrote copious entries for encyclopedias, analyzed languages, and made contributions to carpentry, music and life insurance.
Young’s personal life is still a little shrouded in mystery. Very little remains of his letters and journals, though we know something of his Quaker upbringing from an autobiographical sketch which still exists. Robinson has done a very good job of trying to piece together what does remain of Young’s personal writing to give us a flavour of his remarkable life. Sadly Young was often mocked for dilettantism – his failure to settle on one field of study was seen as somehow circumspect by his contemporaries, possibly explaining why Young is not as celebrated as say Hooke, or Newton.
Robinson is only able to give us a tiny insight in to how Young managed to achieve so much – he includes a description of one of Young’s friends visiting him in the middle of the night, only to find him busily working on some problem, the conclusion being that Young burnt the candle at both ends for much of his life.
This is the first work on Young for nearly 50 years – so it’s a significant biography. I found it a thoroughly engrossing read; sadly a colleague of mine who is a historian found it somewhat dry when he read it! In all honesty the book probably falls somewhere between these two extremes.
Review by Scotty_73


Popular posts from this blog

Cosmology for the Curious - Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin ***

In the recently published The Little Book of Black Holes we saw what I thought was pretty much impossible - a good, next level, general audience science title, spanning the gap between a typical popular science book and an introductory textbook, but very much in the style of popular science. Cosmology for the Curious does something similar, but coming from the other direction. This is an introductory textbook, intended for first year physics students, with familiar textbook features like questions to answer at the end of each chapter. Yet by incorporating some history and context, plus taking a more relaxed style in the writing, it's certainly more approachable than a typical textbook.

The first main section, The Big Bang and the Observable Universe not only covers basic big bang cosmology but fills in the basics of special and general relativity, Hubble's law, dark matter, dark energy and more. We then move onto the more speculative (this is cosmology, after all) aspects, brin…

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry – Neil deGrasse Tyson *****

When I reviewed James Binney’s Astrophysics: A Very Short Introduction earlier this year, I observed that the very word ‘astrophysics’ in a book’s title is liable to deter many readers from buying it. As a former astrophysicist myself, I’ve never really understood why it’s considered such a scary word, but that’s the way it is. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn, from Wikipedia, that this new book by Neil deGrasse Tyson ‘topped The New York Times non-fiction bestseller list for four weeks in the middle of 2017’.

Like James Binney, Tyson is a professional astrophysicist with a string of research papers to his name – but he’s also one of America’s top science popularisers, and that’s the hat he’s wearing in this book. While Binney addresses an already-physics-literate audience, Tyson sets his sights on a much wider readership. It’s actually very brave – and honest – of him to give physics such prominent billing; the book could easily have been given a more reader-friendly title such …

Once upon and Algorithm - Martin Erwig ***

I've been itching to start reading this book for some time, as the premise was so intriguing - to inform the reader about computer science and algorithms using stories as analogies to understand the process.

This is exactly what Martin Erwig does, starting (as the cover suggests) with Hansel and Gretel, and then bringing in Sherlock Holmes (and particularly The Hound of the Baskervilles), Indiana Jones, the song 'Over the Rainbow' (more on that in a moment), Groundhog Day, Back to the Future and Harry Potter.

The idea is to show how some aspect of the story - in the case of Hansel and Gretel, laying a trail of stones/breadcrumbs, then attempting to follow them home - can be seen as a kind of algorithm or computation and gradually adding in computing standards, such as searching, queues and lists, loops, recursion and more.

This really would have been a brilliant book if Erwig had got himself a co-author who knew how to write for the public, but sadly the style is mostly heavy…