Spotlight on Scientists: Thomas Young

(1773 – 1829)

Wait, who?

In modern terms he would have been a Doctor Doctor, or possibly a Doctor Doctor Doctor. He was alive at that weird time where it was possible to be an expert in several fields, but not before those fields had existed. He was a surgeon, a polyglot, and an academic. At a time where surgeons good at other things were mistrusted (and seeing as he was already looked down on by other surgeons for actually explaining things ) he published a bunch of articles anonymously.

Unfortunately the jig was up when he became a professor at the Royal Institution. He quit in 1803 in order to go back to doctoring, and joined St George’s Hospital in 1811, but continued to pursue his interests whenever he liked, and he had a lot of those.

So what did he do?

What didn’t he do?? He contributed to the deciphering of the Rosetta stone. He showed light interference, proving that light was a wave (and so allowing Einstein to suggest that maybe light was a wave and a particle). He did this by performing the double-slit experiment, which is described as perfectly encapsulating the “heart of quantum mechanics” according to Richard Feynman (1).

He characterized elasticity, and Young’s modulus is still used. He described how the eye accommodates  allowing us to focus first close and then far away, was the first to describe astigmatism, and suggested that we perceive colour through three main colour receptors (confirmed experimentally in 1959). He explained capillary action (how liquids can seemingly be sucked up into really thin tubes) through surface tension, as well as describing an equation of how drops form on surfaces.

His rule of thumb for determining drug dosage for children is still used (Young’s rule), and he created a formula for the wave speed of a pulse. The Young temperament is a manner of tuning keyboard instruments, and his principles are still used in life insurance.

He coined the term Indo-European while writing one of his many Encyclopaedia Britannica entries. A lecture series he gave while at the Royal Institution covered pretty much all of known science, the like of which has not been seen since. He was an advisor on shipbuilding to the Admiralty and secretary on the board of longitude.

What he did was be a polymath, a genius, an incredibly important figure in this history of science. He’s often overlooked in favour of people like Newton and Einstein when talking about science geniuses.

Here’s to Thomas Young, a dude that changed our world.



1.”The Last Man Who knew Everything”, Andrew Robinson (2006, Pearson Education, Inc.)

2. Young, T (1802) The Bakerian Lecture: On the Theory of Light and Colours. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond.

3. Tijsseling, A.S., Anderson, A. (2008). “Thomas Young’s research on fluid transients: 200 years on”.

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