Thomas Young was a British polymath and physician. Young made notable scientific contributions to the fields of vision, light, solid mechanics, energy, physiology, language, musical harmony, and Egyptology. He "made a number of original and insightful innovations" in the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs (specifically the Rosetta Stone) before Jean-François Champollion eventually expanded on his work. He was mentioned by, among others, William Herschel, Hermann von Helmholtz, James Clerk Maxwell, and Albert Einstein. Young has been described as "The Last Man Who Knew Everything".
Young is credited with establishing the wave theory of light, influenced in his experiments by those of Isaac Newton. His work was subsequently supported by the work of Augustin-Jean Fresnel.
Young belonged to a Quaker family of Milverton, Somerset, where he was born in 1773, the eldest of ten children. At the age of fourteen Young had learned Greek and Latin and was acquainted with French, Italian, Hebrew, German, Aramaic, Syriac, Samaritan, Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Amharic.
Young began to study medicine in London at St Bartholomew's Hospital in 1792, moved to the University of Edinburgh Medical School in 1794, and a year later went to Göttingen, Lower Saxony, Germany, where he obtained the degree of doctor of medicine in 1796 from the University of Göttingen. In 1797 he entered Emmanuel College, Cambridge. In the same year he inherited the estate of his grand-uncle, Richard Brocklesby, which made him financially independent, and in 1799 he established himself as a physician at 48 Welbeck Street, London (now recorded with a blue plaque). Young published many of his first academic articles anonymously to protect his reputation as a physician.
In 1801, Young was appointed professor of natural philosophy (mainly physics) at the Royal Institution. In two years, he delivered 91 lectures. In 1802, he was appointed foreign secretary of the Royal Society, of which he had been elected a fellow in 1794. He resigned his professorship in 1803, fearing that its duties would interfere with his medical practice. His lectures were published in 1807 in the «Course of Lectures on Natural Philosophy».
In 1811, Young became physician to St George's Hospital, and in 1814 he served on a committee appointed to consider the dangers involved in the general introduction of gas for lighting into London. In 1816 he was secretary of a commission charged with ascertaining the precise length of the seconds pendulum (the length of a pendulum whose period is exactly 2 seconds), and in 1818 he became secretary to the «Board of Longitude» and superintendent of the «Nautical Almanac Office».
Young was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1822. A few years before his death he became interested in life insurance, and in 1827 he was chosen one of the eight foreign associates of the French Academy of Sciences. In 1828, he was elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
Death, legacy and reputation
Thomas Young died in his 56th year in London on 10 May 1829, his body was buried in the graveyard of St. Giles Church at Farnborough, in the county of Kent. Westminster Abbey houses a white marble tablet in memory of Young, bearing an epitaph by Hudson Gurney:
Sacred to the memory of Thomas Young, M.D., Fellow and Foreign Secretary of the Royal Society Member of the National Institute of France. A man alike eminent in almost every department of human learning. A man of unintermitted labour, endowed with the faculty of intuitive perception, who, bringing an equal mastery to the most abstruse investigations of letters and of science, first established the undulatory theory of light, and first penetrated the obscurity which had veiled for ages the hieroglyphs of Egypt. Born at Milverton, in Somersetshire, 13 June 1773. Died in Park Square, London, 10 May 1829, in the 56th year of his age.
Young was highly regarded by his friends and colleagues. He was said never to impose his knowledge, but if asked was able to answer even the most difficult scientific question with ease. Although very learned he had a reputation for sometimes having difficulty in communicating his knowledge. It was said by one of his contemporaries that, "His words were not those in familiar use, and the arrangement of his ideas seldom the same as those he conversed with. He was therefore worse calculated than any man I ever knew for the communication of knowledge."
Later scientists have praised Young's work although they may know him only through achievements he made in their fields. His contemporary Sir John Herschel called him a "truly original genius". Albert Einstein praised him in the 1931 foreword to an edition of Isaac Newton's Opticks. Other admirers include physicist Lord Rayleigh and Nobel laureate Philip Anderson.
Thomas Young's name has been adopted as the name of the London-based Thomas Young Centre, an alliance of academic research groups engaged in the theory and simulation of materials.
Wave theory of light
In Young's own judgment, of his many achievements the most important was to establish the wave theory of light. To do so, he had to overcome the century-old view, expressed in the venerable Newton's Opticks, that light is a particle. Nevertheless, in the early 19th century Young put forth a number of theoretical reasons supporting the wave theory of light, and he developed two enduring demonstrations to support this viewpoint. With the ripple tank he demonstrated the idea of interference in the context of water waves. With Young's interference experiment, or double-slit experiment, he demonstrated interference in the context of light as a wave.
Young, speaking on 24 November 1803, to the Royal Society of London, began his now-classic description of the historic experiment:
The experiments I am about to relate ... may be repeated with great ease, whenever the sun shines, and without any other apparatus than is at hand to every one.
In his subsequent paper, titled Experiments and Calculations Relative to Physical Optics (1804), Young describes an experiment in which he placed a card measuring approximately 0.85 millimetres (0.033 in) in a beam of light from a single opening in a window and observed the fringes of colour in the shadow and to the sides of the card. He observed that placing another card in front or behind the narrow strip so as to prevent the light beam from striking one of its edges caused the fringes to disappear. This supported the contention that light is composed of waves.
Young performed and analysed a number of experiments, including interference of light from reflection off nearby pairs of micrometre grooves, from reflection off thin films of soap and oil, and from Newton's rings. He also performed two important diffraction experiments using fibres and long narrow strips. In his Course of Lectures on Natural Philosophy and the Mechanical Arts (1807) he gives Grimaldi credit for first observing the fringes in the shadow of an object placed in a beam of light. Within ten years, much of Young's work was reproduced and then extended by Augustin-Jean Fresnel.
Young described the characterization of elasticity that came to be known as Young's modulus, denoted as E, in 1807, and further described it in his Course of Lectures on Natural Philosophy and the Mechanical Arts. However, the first use of the concept of Young's modulus in experiments was by Giordano Riccati in 1782—predating Young by 25 years. Furthermore, the idea can be traced to a paper by Leonhard Euler published in 1727, some 80 years before Thomas Young's 1807 paper.
The Young's modulus relates the stress (pressure) in a body to its associated strain (change in length as a ratio of the original length). That is, stress = E × strain, for a uniaxially loaded specimen. Young's modulus is independent of the component under investigation. That is, it is an inherent material property (the term modulus refers to an inherent material property). Young's Modulus allowed, for the first time, prediction of the strain in a component subject to a known stress (and vice versa). Prior to Young's contribution, engineers were required to apply Hooke's relationship to identify the deformation (x) of a body subject to a known load (F), where the constant (k) is a function of both the geometry and material under consideration. Finding k required physical testing for any new component, as the F = kx relationship is a function of both geometry and material. Young's Modulus depends only on the material, not its geometry, thus allowing a revolution in engineering strategies
Vision and colour theory
Young has also been called the founder of physiological optics. In 1793 he explained the mode in which the eye accommodates itself to vision at different distances as depending on change of the curvature of the crystalline lens. In 1801 he was the first to describe astigmatism. And in his lectures he presented the hypothesis, afterwards developed by Hermann von Helmholtz, (the Young–Helmholtz theory), that colour perception depends on the presence in the retina of three kinds of nerve fibres. This foreshadowed the modern understanding of colour vision, in particular the finding that the eye does indeed have three colour receptors which are sensitive to different wavelength ranges.
In 1804, Young developed the theory of capillary phenomena on the principle of surface tension. He also observed the constancy of the angle of contact of a liquid surface with a solid, and showed how from these two principles to deduce the phenomena of capillary action. In 1805, Pierre-Simon Laplace, the French philosopher, discovered the significance of meniscus radii with respect to capillary action.
In 1830, Carl Friedrich Gauss, the German mathematician, unified the work of these two scientists to derive the Young–Laplace equation, the formula that describes the capillary pressure difference sustained across the interface between two static fluids.
Young was the first to define the term "energy" in the modern sense.
In physiology Young made an important contribution to haemodynamics in the Croonian lecture for 1808 on the "Functions of the Heart and Arteries," where he derived a formula for the wave speed of the pulseand his medical writings included An Introduction to Medical Literature, including a System of Practical Nosology (1813) and A Practical and Historical Treatise on Consumptive Diseases (1815).
Young devised a rule of thumb for determining a child's drug dosage. Young's Rule states that the child dosage is equal to the adult dosage multiplied by the child's age in years, divided by the sum of 12 plus the child's age.
Young made significant contributions to the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs. He started his Egyptology work rather late, in 1813, when the work was already in progress among other researchers.
He began by using an Egyptian demotic alphabet of 29 letters built up by Johan David Akerblad in 1802 (14 turned out to be incorrect). Åkerblad was correct in stressing the importance of the demotic text in trying to read the inscriptions, but he wrongly believed that demotic was entirely alphabetic.
By 1814 Young had completely translated the "enchorial" text of the Rosetta Stone (using a list with 86 demotic words), and then studied the hieroglyphic alphabet but initially failed to recognise that the demotic and hieroglyphic texts were paraphrases and not simple translations.
There was considerable rivalry between Young and Jean-François Champollion while both were working on hieroglyphic decipherment. At first they briefly cooperated in their work, but later, from around 1815, a chill arose between them. For many years they kept details of their work away from each other.
Some of Young's conclusions appeared in the famous article "Egypt" he wrote for the 1818 edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica.
When Champollion finally published a translation of the hieroglyphs and the key to the grammatical system in 1822, Young (and many others) praised his work. Nevertheless, a year later Young published an Account of the Recent Discoveries in Hieroglyphic Literature and Egyptian Antiquities, to have his own work recognised as the basis for Champollion's system.
Young had correctly found the sound value of six hieroglyphic signs, but had not deduced the grammar of the language. Young himself acknowledged that he was somewhat at a disadvantage because Champollion's knowledge of the relevant languages, such as Coptic, was much greater.
Several scholars have suggested that Young's true contribution to Egyptology was his decipherment of the demotic script. He made the first major advances in this area. He also correctly identified demotic as being composed by both ideographic and phonetic signs.
Subsequently, Young felt that Champollion was unwilling to share the credit for the decipherment. In the ensuing controversy, strongly motivated by the political tensions of that time, the British tended to champion Young, while the French mostly championed Champollion. Champollion did acknowledge some of Young's contribution, but rather sparingly. However, after 1826, when Champollion was a curator in the Louvre, he did offer Young access to demotic manuscripts.