Scientist Young, international man of mystery
SO is the title of Andrew Robinson’s new book hyperbole? Of course it is. We all know that no one person can encompass all knowledge, that people who aspire to are nothing more than “Jeopardy!” freaks. But now and then, someone comes along who seems to have received several people’s share of curiosity and insight and talent. Thomas Jefferson might be a good example.
Nor are such fabulous beasts extinct: Consider the contemporary English polymath Jonathan Miller, who has excelled in comedy, medicine, the visual arts and television and opera direction.
So let us grant Robinson his shameless exaggeration. If ever a human being was hard to pin down in normal terms, it would be that exhaustive and exhausting genius Thomas Young.
Born in England in 1773, Young grew up a Quaker but by early adulthood had rejected most of the group’s puritanical tenets. He was a child prodigy. All the evidence indicates that he was reading by age 2. Nor were these picture books about duckies; his family reported that by the venerable age of 4, he had twice read through the Bible. Soon he was studying botany, zoology, languages, mathematics. With superhero speed, he absorbed the Greek and Latin that dominated university curricula at the time and on his own branched off into Syriac, Chaldee, Hebrew and Samaritan.
As a young man, Young was just as formidable. His friends must have found him infuriating. He didn’t even have poor penmanship; the script of his translation into Greek of Cardinal Wolsey’s speech to Thomas Cromwell in Shakespeare’s “Henry VIII” is simply gorgeous, even though it may well qualify as the nerdiest undergraduate display in history.
Resistant to artificial barriers and educated in various countries, Young became one of the first truly international scientists, corresponding with experts from all over the world. Oh, and Young was, in the words of his first biographer, “passionately fond of female society.”
Young accomplished too much to list here, but he made his name in the sciences by providing the first evidence that the deeply weird phenomenon we casually refer to as “light” is actually more like a wave than a steady stream of “corpuscles,” as Newton had theorized a century before. These sections of the book, which deal with concepts that are not only abstruse but originally expressed in antique language, are an impressive performance.
Robinson explains Newton’s conclusions and theories against the background of his era’s slow shrugging off of classical authorities and makes us appreciate how much Young built upon Newton’s work even when revising it. The occasional diagram is almost superfluous, because Robinson’s writing is so lucid.
In fact the style of the entire book is a wonder. With no flourishes, no time wasting, Robinson calmly deciphers the man and his numerous fields of inquiry. Clearly, Robinson has some polymathic tendencies, or he wouldn’t be able to glide so elegantly from discussions of Greek calligraphy to the mechanics of the human retina to the way in which one goes about unlocking a past civilization by opening a coded message as if turning a key.
But, then, Robinson is a king’s scholar at Eton College and the author of four previous biographies and many other books. His own diversity would explain his tropism toward Young. His biographical subjects include the poet Rabindranath Tagore, the great filmmaker Satyajit Ray as well as Einstein.
Robinson argues, as other commentators have, that Young’s versatility worked against him in terms of history’s attention. In which category does he belong? Linguistics and optics aren’t neighbors on the library shelf. No one, not even Robinson, suggests that Young be allowed to sit at the table with Darwin, Einstein and Newton. But Robinson is clearly lobbying for a reevaluation of a man forgotten by all but specialists, and he marshals plenty of evidence to support his case.
The best part of the book may be Robinson’s detailed tour through the labyrinth of languages and historical misconceptions around that Holy Grail of archeology, the Rosetta Stone. Gradually, Young’s insights (and occasional errors) accumulate as he compares the stone’s three languages -- Greek, Egyptian demotic and Egyptian hieroglyphic.
The tragedy of his life may be that, for reasons that Robinson explores at length, the name in your mind’s file about the Rosetta Stone is the mellifluous Jean-Francois Champollion, now considered the founder of Egyptology, instead of Thomas Young.
Michael Sims is the author of “Adam’s Navel” and the editor of “The Annotated Archy and Mehitabel.”