The traditional view of Thomas Young (1773–1829) is that of an underappreciated genius. He was a child prodigy who could read fluently at the age of two and widely read the classics. By the age of 14 he was acquainted with Latin, Greek, French, Italian, Hebrew, Arabic, and Persian. Because of his many talents and wide-ranging interests, his fellow students in Cambridge nicknamed him “Phenomenon Young.” After his formal education he set up a medical practice in London, but spent most of his time doing research. His initial interest was in sense perception, and he was the first to realize that the eye focuses by changing the shape of the lens. He also discovered the cause of astigmatism, and was the initiator, together with Helmholtz, of the three-color theory of perception, believing that the eye constructs its sense of color using only three receptors, for red, green, and blue. In spite of all these achievements, his practice never flourished.
He also worked on deciphering the hieroglyphic text on the Rosetta Stone. He was the first to point out that the cartouches (the oval figures enclosing hieroglyphs) indicate the names of royalty. Nevertheless, all the credit for solving the mysteries of hieroglyphic writing went to the Frenchman Champollion.
Likewise, Young’s seminal work on optics, which we will later discuss in more detail, was largely dismissed by his compatriots. In those days, any theory that went against the views of Newton was simply unacceptable to them. His main recognition came posthumously. As his epitaph in Westminster Abbey states, Thomas Young was “a man alike eminent in almost every department of human learning.”
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