The Last Man Who Knew Everything

Andrew Robinson, Author
Andrew Robinson, Author . Pearson/Pi $24.95 (288p) ISBN 978-0-13-134304-7
Reviewed on: 11/07/2005
Release date: 01/01/2006

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.)

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