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The Last Man Who Knew Everything: Thomas Young, the Anonymous Genius Who Proved Newton Wrong and Deciphered the Rosetta Stone, Among Other Surprising Mass Market Paperback – 26 Dec 2006

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Product details

  • Mass Market Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Plume Books; Reprint edition (26 Dec. 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0452288053
  • ISBN-13: 978-0452288058
  • Product Dimensions: 14 x 1.8 x 21.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,250,450 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


'Meticulously researched, superbly written, richly illustrated and imbued with an enthusiasm for its subject that does not flag even when analysing some of Young's most abstruse studies. This book should be cherished by all who value originality, breadth of knowledge and intellectual passion.' --The New Scientist

'Thomas Young has long awaited a first-class biography, and Andrew Robinson has provided one. It is the best biography I have read for many years.' --Sir Patrick Moore, Astronomer and Presenter of The Sky at Night.

'Robinson's success in condensing his almost limitless scholarship for a general reader is commendable.' --FT Magazine --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From the Back Cover

“Fortunate Newton … Nature to him was an open book, whose letters he could read without effort. … His observations of the colors of thin films [were] the origin of the next great theoretical advance, which had to await, over a hundred years, the coming of Thomas Young.”

–Albert Einstein, Foreword to the fourth edition of Isaac Newton’s Opticks, 1931


Praise for The Last Man Who Knew Everything


“By documenting the extraordinary life and career of Thomas Young, this book reminds us how most of us tap only a small proportion of our full potential. It is also a cautionary tale on how society reacts to individuals who cannot be pigeon-holed.”

–Sir Arthur C. Clarke

“Thomas Young has long awaited a first-class biography, and Andrew Robinson has provided one. It is the best biography I have read for many years.”

–Sir Patrick Moore, Fellow of the Royal Society, astronomer and writer

“Thomas Young elucidated the optics of the eye, the wave theory of light, the laws of elasticity, the nature of the Egyptian hieroglyphic writing, and Lord knows how many other subjects.  It is wonderful to have such an elegant biography of this remarkable man.”

–Philip Anderson, Nobel Laureate in physics, Princeton University


Praise for Andrew Robinson’s biography of Satyajit Ray


“An extraordinarily good, detailed, and selfless book.”

–V. S. Naipaul, Nobel Laureate in literature


Here is the story of an amazing character at a turning point in the history of knowledge. No one has given the extraordinary Thomas Young the all-round examination he so richly deserves–until now.  Celebrated biographer Andrew Robinson portrays a man who solved mystery after mystery in the face of ridicule and rejection, and never sought fame.

Was Young really the last man who knew everything? Physics textbooks identify Thomas Young (1773-1829) as the experimenter who first proved that light is a wave–not a stream of corpuscles as Newton proclaimed. In any book on the eye and vision, Young is the London physician who showed how the eye focuses and proposed the three-color theory of vision–confirmed only in 1959. Then again, in any book on ancient Egypt, Young is credited for his crucial detective work in deciphering the Rosetta Stone. It is hard to grasp how much he knew.

Invited to contribute to a new edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Young offered the following subjects: Alphabet, Annuities, Attraction, Capillary Action, Cohesion, Color, Dew, Egypt, Eye, Focus, Friction, Halo, Hieroglyphic, Hydraulics, Motion, Resistance, Ship, Sound, Strength, Tides, Waves, and “anything of a medical nature.” He asked that all his contributions be kept anonymous.

While not yet thirty, he gave a course of lectures at the Royal Institution covering virtually all of known science. But polymathy made him unpopular in the academy. An early attack on his wave theory of light was so scathing that English physicists buried it for nearly two decades until it was rediscovered in France. But slowly, after his death, great scientists began to recognize his genius.

Today, in an age of professional specialization unimaginable in 1800, polymathy still disturbs us. Is this insatiable curiosity selfish or even irresponsible?  Either way, Young’s character has a quality all but lost in our narcissistic culture.  Here is the story of a driven yet modest hero, someone who could make the grandiose claim to have been the last man who knew everything, but for the fact that he cared less about what others thought of him than for the joys of an unbridled pursuit of knowledge.


The hand-colored satirical etching by James Gillray, 1802, on the back cover–Scientific Researches!―New Discoveries in PNEUMATICKS!―or―an Experimental Lecture on the Powers of Air–shows Thomas Young, professor of natural philosophy at the Royal Institution, experimenting on its manager while watched by Humphry Davy (holding bellows). The man with a bulbous nose standing at the right is the inventor Count Rumford, who founded the Royal Institution.


The formal portrait of Thomas Young was painted by Sir Thomas Lawrence in the 1820s. (Courtesy Simon Young)



--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Inside This Book

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First Sentence
Two or three years before his death, Thomas Young wrote a substantial autobiographical sketch in the third person, intended to be of use to someone writing an entry on "Young, Thomas" in a future edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Mass Market Paperback Verified Purchase
I was particularly interested in Thomas Young and had tried to find a biography. This account manages to make the life of an interesting man quite dull, and I was actually quite glad when I finished the book. Poorly written, I'm afraid, but seems to be the only available biography.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Robinson hits the spot, as usual: informative, surprising, a pleasant read. (Amazon now tells me I need to write 9 more words to finish this review, so I have added this sentence, which contains 24.)
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) HASH(0x9c74c2a0) out of 5 stars 19 reviews
18 of 18 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9c017f30) out of 5 stars Excellent Snapshot of Thomas Young's Life and Work 26 April 2006
By George Poirier - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Although, as specified by the author, this is not meant to be a full biography of Thomas Young, this book certainly does give the reader an excellent perspective of the man, his many activities and his times. Any meaningful sketch of Thomas Young would need to include, amongst many other topics, some discourse on his work in physics, particularly the wave properties of light. This book certainly includes such discussions. The author has the ability to present physical principles with the utmost clarity - something that is, most unfortunately, lacking in many a scientific paper. I was not aware that Thomas Young was involved in so many fields, including Egyptology. In particular, I have always been under the erroneous impression that the deciphering of the Rosetta Stone was solely the work of Champollion; this book sets the record straight on that matter. The book is well-written and should be accessible to everyone. It would make a valuable addition to any library, particularly one leaning towards topics pertaining to the history of science.
21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9c017f84) out of 5 stars A Little Dry, But Worth the Science 20 Oct. 2006
By R. Schultz - Published on
Format: Hardcover
There isn't a great deal of personal, emotional information about Thomas Young, the title polymath here. But then his life was mostly in his work. And there is a lot to be learned following Thomas' investigations of a variety of scientific and scholarly subjects.

His range truly was amazing. How did people accomplish so much in previous centuries? Well, I suppose without TV to suck away time... But Thomas was exceptional even for his overachieving, turn-of-the-18th-century age. And this biography allows a reader to follow in the path of his curiosity - about how the eye works, about the nature of light, about Egyptian writing.

The biographer's descriptions of Thomas' researches into the physiology of the human eye can get pretty gruesome. These pages are not for the squeamish. Thomas often used himself as subject, probing his own eye socket to get to the bottom of things.

The section on his investigations into light is really enlightening and presents some of the clearest descriptions I've read of the split-screen diffraction experiment. This experiment was key in leading Thomas to his pioneering proposition that light is wave-like in nature.

And then the section on his work translating the Rosetta Stone was news to me! I had always assumed that ancient Egyptian hieroglyph writing was a form of picture writing like Chinese, with each symbol representing a whole word. But Thomas' break-through lay in the realization that the Egyptian symbols were actually largely like our modern English alphabet - that each symbol represented a sound, a phoneme. And so he gave us the key to reading the inscriptions on the ancient Egyptian tombs and obelisks.

The writing here is generally clear and will keep you turning page by page, tracking Thomas' investigations as he unlocks one mystery after another.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9c0193d8) out of 5 stars Really and Truely a Man Who Knew Everything 30 Nov. 2008
By Grey Wolffe - Published on
One of the problems with reading the biography (or writing) of a true Polymath, is that to really understand the man's undertakings you practically have to be a polymath yourself. Since Young's talents ran from optics to sound to medicine to magnetism to linguistics to force calculations, and it seems like everything in between, he is a difficult man to tie down. Robinson has done an admirable job of this though I found that some of the science was beyond me.

Considered a genius even by his detractors, the one problem with Young was that HE wanted to be a successful Physician but never put enough time into his practice to be successful. Young seems to be constantly running off at tangents as to what he wants to explore. Maybe the problem of his genius was that nothing (until near the end of his life) could keep his interest long enough for him to become a true expert. He has at least four theories or theorums named after him, but he never got to the real detail in many of his ideas because once he had started on a line of inquiry that proved theoretical results he went off somewhere else.

You could attribute some of his fault at non-detail to his Quaker upbringing. Quakers had little use for frivolity, ostentation or accessories. A true Quaker language would have only nouns and verbs, no reason for all those needless adjectives. In Young's writing he was consistently attacked for the 'tightness' of his writing, which sometimes
was to the point of uncomprehension. To 'protect' his medical practice he wrote many of his non-medical studies anonymously and never was one to 'blow his own horn'. Unlike most men of science from his era (like Humphry or Faraday) he was never knighted because he never campaigned for it.

His one controversy was over his translation of the hieroglyphics on the Rosetta Stone. He published the first breakthrough on the meaning of some of the symbols in the 'cartouches', but because he then went off to study something else, he was surpassed by Compillion who then refused to give him credit for originally cracking the code. Young later did get credit for translating the secondary language (demotics) that took the Egyptian to Greek. Once again, had he stayed with working on the Stone he would have (or should have) broken the hieroglyphic code himself.

Young was a man who couldn't learn enough, fast enough and that's what seemed to haunt him his whole life. He died at 56 and his passing was hardly noted at the time.

NOTE: there are two other books with the same title (The Last Man Who Knew Everything), one on Athanasius Kircher who lived before Young and one on Joseph Leidy (who mostly work in Medicine and Paleontolgy). Neither had the scope or legacy of Young.

Zeb Kantrowitz
21 of 26 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9c019354) out of 5 stars you might not like this book 9 Jun. 2006
By Russell A. Carleton - Published on
Format: Hardcover
If you're already intrigued by the concept of polymathy (a man who studies and works in many different subjects), were a triple major with two minors in college, or have a general interest in Thomas Young, you'll come away from this satisfied. Young's a fascinating guy, and given the task of understanding a man who worked in such varied areas, Robinson does a decent job writing his biography, or perhaps more properly, measuring and framing Young's contributions in the various subjects listed on the cover. The problem is that I don't think this book would cross over to a general audience that doesn't fit one of the above criteria. But then again, I could be wrong.
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9c019888) out of 5 stars Great book on a great man 7 Mar. 2006
By Physics Fan - Published on
Format: Hardcover
I have always been fascinated by Thomas Young ever since my high school physics teacher would always mention him as having an important contribution on whatever we were studying. James Burke (of Connections fame) also mentions him quite frequently.

Considering the lack of information on Thomas Young, this book is great. My only complaint is that he doesn't mention that the double slit experiment is one of the foundations of quantum mechanics. Richard Feynman, physics Nobel prize winner, said that everything always comes back to the double slit experiment. It would have been nice to give modern day examples especially since the double slit experiment with a single electron was voted the most beautiful physics experiment ever.
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