Thomas Young was sent away from his parents’ home in Milverton shortly after his birth in 1773 to live with his maternal grandfather, who discovered his grandson to be a child prodigy and encouraged his eclectic interests. Very soon, at the age of two, Young was reading fluently. Before the age of four, at the village school and with his aunt at home, he had read the Bible twice. He could also recite the entire poem by Oliver Goldsmith, The Deserted Village, in 430 lines.
Like many child prodigies, his memory was formidable. Recalling his childhood, Young, in his autobiographical sketch, writes disarmingly: As regards the qualities of mind and feeling, it may be said that I was born old and died young.
Young began his medical training in 1792, and his progress was so rapid that his paper, Observations on vision, was read to the Royal Society in 1793, when he was not quite 20 years old. Society the following year, in 1794. It is inconceivable that even such a gifted young man as Young could be elected a Fellow of the Royal Society on the basis of a single scientific publication.
At the very beginning of the 19th century, Young demonstrated the interference of light by projecting a beam of light through two narrow slits and observing the pattern created by the beam from the slit on a screen. Young’s fringes, as they were called, showed that light added to light could produce more light; or surprisingly, darkness. Young’s famous double slits have become much more than a historically important experiment, as they can be used to demonstrate both wave and particle behavior. The double-slit experiment sums up, according to the incredible physicist Richard Feynman, the “heart of quantum mechanics”, its “one mystery”.
It’s not just physicists who claim Young as their own. Open any engineering textbook and you’re sure to come across “Young’s modulus”, a fundamental measure of elasticity based on the principles of stress and strain; open any book on ophthalmology, and Young emerges as the physiologist who first explained how the eye adapts to distance, the one who discovered astigmatism and, more importantly, the first to explain how the eye reacts to light.
No wonder Young was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society when he was so young. It was the man who, when asked to contribute articles to a new edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica in 1816, suggested the following topics: alphabet, annuities, attraction, capillary action, cohesion, color, dew , Egypt, eye, focus, friction, halo, hieroglyph, hydraulics, movement, resistance, ship, sound, force, tides, waves and “anything medical in nature”. Young did not boast, he seems never to have boasted; and in fact, he has requested that all of his contributions remain anonymous. He did not bother to point out to the editor his polyglot knowledge of ancient and modern languages and classical literature. His concern for anonymity was because in the class-conscious, relatively unscientific, quack-infested medical world of his time, Young’s dazzling array of interests outside of physiology might have given the impression of a physician not fully committed to his patients.
Young died too early, just before the age of 56. For anyone drawn to the versatility of genius, Thomas Young is an inspiration. Read The Last Man Who Knew Everything, his biography by Andrew Robinson; an enchanting story of a man who could indeed claim to have been the last man who knew everything, except that he cared less about what others thought of him and more for the joys of a frantic pursuit of knowledge.
Gurucharan Gollerkeri, the former civil servant enjoys browsing the myriad spaces of ideas, thinkers and books