Thomas Young, "Phenomenon Young" - English polymath. 1773 - 1829

"The nature of light is a subject of no material importance to the concerns of life or to the practice of the arts, but it is in many other respects extremely interesting"

Known as a researcher in physics, medicine and optics, Thomas Young was also a classical linguist who became fascinated with Egyptian hieroglyphics and laid much of the groundwork for deciphering the Rosetta Stone.

His Early Years

Born on 13th June, 1773 into a Quaker family in Milverton, he quickly learned to read (fluently, by the age of two). As his father was a wealthy banker, his education was guaranteed, and he was sent to boarding schools where he learned a number of languages, including Latin (from the age of six), classical Greek, Hebrew, Chaldean, Syriac, Samaritan, Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Amharic (Ethiopian). He also studied privately in the fields of mathematics, physics and the natural sciences, reading the works of Newton and Lavoisier among others.

His uncle, the doctor Richard Brocklesby, supported him greatly in his studies, encouraging him especially to study medicine. In 1793, he began to read medicine at St Bartholomew's Hospital, and presented a paper to the Royal Society in which he explained how the human eye focuses, accomodating through the lens rather than its muscular structure. He continued in the same vein at Edinburgh (1794), the same year that he was elected to the Society, and went on to Göttingen the following year. This period of study laid the groundwork for his later work on the human eye and perception, which would in turn further rouse his interest in optics.

On gaining admission to Emmanuel College, Cambridge in 1797, he attracted such attention through his quick and brilliant mind that he was nicknamed "Phenomenon Young". His uncle died in the same year, and left him a substantial amount of money as well as a house - sufficient for him to continue his studies and begin his own medical practice. He did continue to study, even when he was appointed professor of natural philosophy at the Royal Institution (in 1801), where he began a series of public lectures, but he remained associated with the college until 1803. (The next year, he was married to Eliza Maxwell.)

On Optics

His work on light and optics began to dominate his thoughts, and he published many papers, notably Experiments on Sound and Light, in addition to his many lectures. Despite his tremendous enthusiasm, much of the value his work was not fully recognised until many years later. Some of this was because he dared to disagree with the great Isaac Newton, whose word in most scientific circles had taken on the status of unchallengable law. His work on interference (the double slit experiment) and associated phenomena were therefore considered fairly obscure at the time, and it was left to later researchers, notably Augustin Fresnel, to make application of his work.

He gained a great understanding of how lenses worked, both when perfect and when flawed (curved), leading to much work being done in the field of corrective lenses for astigmatism.

He also worked on the whole area of visual perception, including colour vision. His work on trichromatic theory led to a greater understanding of how we "see" in colour, and although the model has been adjusted over the years (notably by Hermann von Helmholtz), he certainly laid the groundwork for a modern understanding of sensory psychology.

Hieroglyphics and the Rosetta Stone

Young was a polymath, fascinated by everything around him, and able to turn his agile mind to almost any problem. Around the year 1813 he became interested in the deciphering of the Rosetta Stone, which would lead to the Holy Grail of Egyptologists - understanding hieroghlyphics.

In 1814 he set off to Worthing on his annual holiday, taking with him a copy of the inscriptions on the Stone. His attention was drawn to the cartouches (sets of ringed symbols), which he believed held a special significance, possibly a name. His hunch paid off. The two cartouches turned out to be for Ptolemaios and Kleopatra(t), which enabled him to associate many of the symbols with their Greek equivalents. This also established that hieroglyphics were phonograms (phonetic) rather than semagrams (representing ideas), settling a controversy which had been running for hundreds of years.

He worked for many years to complete his study, and published an Account of the Recent Discoveries in Hieroglyphic Literature and Egyptian Antiquities, which he summarised in an article on Egypt which appeared in the 1818 Encyclopædia Britannica. His discovery was to prompt others, notably Jean François Champollion, to follow up on his work, which led to a complete understanding of Egyptian writing and out subsequent knowledge of their history, culture and science.

The Polymath

In addition to all of these accomplishments, he also contributed much to the understanding of energy as a concept of work done and set out the theory that light took the form of transverse waves. He developed methods for determining the elasticity properties of materials (Young's Modulus being named in his honour), relating the increase in length of a wire to the force applied to it. Further, he developed a new and comprehensive theory of tides.

It seems that there was no end to his accomplishments. He worked on measuring the size of molecules, did much research into the circulatory system, notably the heart and arteries, and carried out a great deal of work on surface tension.

He died in London on 10th May, 1829. We can only wonder at what he might have achieved had he lived his full threescore years and ten - his epitaph in Westminster Abbey says of him that he was "a man alike eminent in almost every department of human learning".

Simon Singh The Code Book. London: Fourth Estate, 2000

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