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Determined application, 1820
The productivity of a polymath
There are two things that I have never yet learned, and I suppose I never shall—to get up and to go to bed…
Last week we met Jean-François Champollion when he had his moment of revelation about deciphering the Rosetta Stone in 1822. I mentioned that in the audience for his announcement, purely by chance, was his English rival Thomas Young. This week I’d like to introduce Young himself as he was a remarkable character in his own right.
He is primarily remembered in the world of science as a mathematician and physicist, although he certainly laid some of the foundations for Champollion’s work in linguistics, and he was basically interested in everything. In fact, Andrew Robinson’s enthusiastic biography of Young is titled The Last Man Who Knew Everything: Thomas Young, the anonymous polymath who proved Newton wrong, explained how we see, cured the sick and deciphered the Rosetta Stone (Pi Press, 2005) – I’m not sure ‘anonymous’ is true as Young became well known in his day, although it’s possible my own ignorance of him reflects that he is less so now (or it just reflects my own ignorance).
Young was born in Somerset in 1773 to Quaker parents, cloth merchant and banker Thomas senior and Sarah Davis; Thomas junior was the eldest of ten children, precociously smart and soon surpassing anything his childhood schools could throw at him. At only age 13 he became tutor to Hudson Gurney, only a year his junior – Gurney was later an antiquarian, poet and politician and the two remained lifelong friends. A decade later Young was studying medicine in London, Edinburgh and Cambridge (where he soon gained the nickname ‘Phenomenon Young’) , after which he set up as a physician in London, while starting to write scientific articles (indeed anonymously at this point). There was an ongoing tension through his life between his medical work (later at St George’s Hospital) and his scientific/linguistic researches, with the latter gaining him far more attention than the former.1
Among other things he was professor of natural philosophy at the Royal Institution, fellow and foreign secretary of the Royal Society, secretary to the Board of Longitude and an honorary member of many international institutions for both arts and sciences. It is almost impossible to encompass his full range of interests and writings,2 but here are a few highlights:
he was the first to demonstrate that light travels in waves
he was the first to describe astigmatism of the eye, and pioneered understanding of the perception of colour
he made notable observations on capillary action, surface tension, the definition of energy and understanding how blood flows
he determined a rule for the dose of medicine children should receive compared with adults
in linguistics, as well as his groundwork in deciphering hieroglyphics, he developed his own phonetic alphabet and wrote major articles on Egypt, languages, hydraulics and many other subjects for early editions of Encyclopedia Britannica, plus coined the term ‘Indo-European’ for the language family
in other fields, he developed a method of tuning musical instruments, analysed life expectancy data for insurance purposes, wrote biographies of famous scientists
In short, he was relentless in his curiosity. (If that’s a theme which appeals to you, I heartily recommend Mike Sowden’s newsletter Everything is Amazing – the 5th season is all about colour, a theme close to Young’s heart.) And although Young had various academic disagreements with people, Champollion among them, he seems to have been a level-headed person, happily married and much liked. Hudson Gurney’s epitaph for him in Westminster Abbey says he was “a man alike eminent in almost every department of human learning” but also “endeared to his friends by his domestic virtues”.
Young himself wrote an autobiographical sketch c.1827 (only two years before he died of atherosclerosis, aged only 55), which was lost for decades and then rediscovered in the archives of a later scientific polymath, Francis Galton.3 In it, Young wrote of himself (in the third person):
He was indebted to nature for a good verbal memory, and he certainly had no cause to complain of deficiency in his other mental faculties, but he used to consider himself as more indebted, for the extent of his acquirements, to the habit of close and determined application than to any superiority of natural talent.
And this modest attribution of his skills to application rather than innate genius is reflected in the letter I share with you this week, written by Young (aged 47) to Hudson Gurney in December 1820. Gurney was now vastly wealthy but complaining of ennui and inertia, and here is Young’s reply.
About this time last year I was giving myself a holiday of a few weeks, and I fell into a sort of fidgety languor and fancied I was growing old; it went off very soon however, and I am convinced there is no remedy so effectual for this and other intellectual diseases as plenty of employment, without over-fatigue or anxiety. This autumn I have been in fact going on with the work which I was then almost frightened at having undertaken, “Elementary illustrations of the celestial mechanics of Laplace”, and am already printing the first part of it—being only a translation with a commentary, it will do better without my name than with it. I am also writing over again my Article on Languages in the Quarterly Review with many additions for the next supplement of the Encyclopaedia Britannica—and a Biographical Memoir on Lagrange will be almost as long, requiring a list of 100 different papers on the most abstruse parts of the mathematics.
I have then the business of the Board of Longitude to manage, and some of the Royal Society. The Arctic expedition [by Sir William Parry] is now settled; but we are fitting out our astronomer [Fearon Fallows] for the Cape of Good Hope with all his books and instruments, then there is a committee of elegant extracts to consider of the tonnage of ships, appointed by the Royal Society, the Admiralty, the Board of Trade, and the Treasury—which will not take long, but I shall have the onus—then there is my hospital—to speak modestly of my private patients—who are very discreet at this time of the year.
By the way, such a day as this would make one glad to be anywhere rather than in London. I was forced to read by the fire and write in the dark at 1 o’clock: for I thought if I had candles I should scarcely have resolution to take my ride. Then I must not forget that I must very shortly fulfill my promise to do a little more to the hieroglyphics, and after one number more I shall be able to judge if the thing is worth continuing or not…
Certainly, if a man that is married to a profession cannot avoid keeping a mistress or two, he ought not to be the first to blazon to the world the liberties he takes…
I do not believe that you are much the older for anything that occurred when you were a boy; nor do I think that I should have been the worse in health if I had been less rigid in my regimen. It is well for me that I have not to live over again; I doubt if I should make so good a use of my time as mere accident has compelled me to do. Many things I could certainly mend, and spare myself both time and trouble: but on the whole, if I had done very differently from what I have, I dare say I should have repented more than I now do of anything—and this is a tolerable retrospect of 40 years of one’s life.
I have learned more or less perfectly a tolerable variety of things in this world: but there are two things that I have never yet learned, and I suppose I never shall—to get up and to go to bed. It is past 12, and literally Monday morning as I have dated my letter, but I must write for an hour longer.