Magazine article The Spectator

A Fox with a Bit of Hedgehog

Magazine article The Spectator

A Fox with a Bit of Hedgehog

Article excerpt

THE LAST MAN WHO KNEW EVERYTHING by Andrew Robinson Oneworld, £17.99, pp. 288, ISBN 1851684948 . £14.99 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

Replace the commas in the subtitle of this book, 'Thomas Young, the Anonymous Polymath who Proved Newton Wrong, Explained How We See, and Deciphered the Rosetta Stone Among Other Feats of Genius', with exclamation marks, and it reads like the title of a Gillray cartoon or the patter of a circus huckster.

The problem we have with polymaths, as Andrew Robinson points out in his introduction, is that they do seem too good to be true. When it comes to Isaiah Berlin's famous distinction between thinkers -- hedgehogs, who know one big thing, and foxes, who know many things -- we are generally more comfortable with the hedgehogs. Or rather, preferring to pin thinkers down into easily memorable categories, we will foxes into hedgehogs. The foxes, with their wide-ranging intellectual curiosity and manifold talents excite our suspicion. Perhaps they are plausible quacks; perhaps they force us to acknowledge our own blinkered specialisms.

Thomas Young, with his achievements in optics, physics, medicine, philology, life insurance and mechanics (among other things), was a remarkable figure in the early 19th century; he now has the biography he deserves. He was elected to the Royal Society at the tender age of 21. In his late twenties his theory of optics in the eye led to researches which demonstrated that light acted as waves, not, as Newton had said, a stream of corpuscles. In his forties he contributed 63 articles to the supplement of the Encyclopaedia Britannica on subjects as diverse and complicated as bridges, ancient Egypt and tides; at the same time he was making the first moves in the unlocking of the riddle of the Rosetta Stone. And these are just a few of the things that Young managed to cram into his life. He died in 1827, aged just 56. The list of his achievements is enough to make the reader feel dizzy and at least a little inadequate; it is a problem for the biographer as well.

It would be too easy to eulogise such a character. In another author's hands, Young might have been treated with reverential awe. But Robinson is an experienced enough writer to give the case against his subject as well as attempting to justify the big claims of the title. In his own time and ever since Young has been accused of spreading himself too widely to make a real mark in any of his fields. As one friend complained to Young, it was a matter of regret that his versatility was such that he was forever being pulled 'from mathematics to Greek philosophy and from that to medicine' so that he was unable to bring his discoveries to a 'pitch of perfection'. …

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