Wednesday, 2 February 2011

The Last Man to Know Everything

On May 10th 1829, the English renaissance man, Thomas Young, died at his home in London. In his 56 years, he revolutionised no less than five branches of physics (including pioneering the wave theory of light), three medical specialties (including inventing a rule of thumb for converting adult drug dosages for use in children), developed a new method for tuning musical instruments, wrote extensively on philosophy, and partially deciphered the Rosetta Stone, leading directly to its full translation by Jean-Francois Champollion. Despite this impressive array of accomplishments, Thomas Young isn’t very widely known to-day. He is undeniably one of the giants on whose shoulders modern science stands, but his ideas fell mostly into that grey area between gravity and relativity, too technical to be of use to the average person and not shocking enough to interest him, and perhaps that’s all for the better. The coefficient of elasticity is rightfully not all that compelling these days. But Dr. Young was marked out by history in at least one way that deserves a little more recognition: he is widely believed to be the Last Man to Know Everything.

So, what does that mean? For most of human history, it was possible for an educated person to know literally everything that was known. Now of course, ‘the known’ was a fairly limited field at the time. Thomas Young, or Da Vinci, or Francis Bacon (all contenders for the title) surely would have been stupefyingly ignorant about Confucianism or Antarctic geography, but within their limitations, these men were familiar with everything it was possible for a man of their time to know. And this doesn’t just mean that they had read all the latest in physics and economics and astronomy, but also that for any given piece of furniture in their houses they could tell you how it was put together and came to be in the dining room, they knew how the wax for their candles was produced, their ink mixed, their books printed, their wine farmed, fermented and bottled, their horses husbanded, ad infinitum.

Of course, whether any of these men actually knew ‘everything’ about all of these things, it is certainly the case that they were recognised experts on every facet of their worlds. It was possible for Thomas Jefferson to know how walls are raised and beer brewed, how pulleys and cotton futures work, how universities and countries are founded, and still be able to cogito and ergo sum with the best of them, while to-day it is possible for a Nobel Prize winning physicist to come home from a day at Los Alamos and not have any idea how to work his TIVO.

Now, none of this is meant to unfairly elevate the genius of Thomas Youngs over the genius of Nuclear physicists. Give Thomas Young a copy of The General Theory of Relativity and he would certainly be so far out to sea that he just might reach India; and surely Nuclear Physicists know quite enough without the TIVO. The reason that no one knows everything these days isn’t that geniuses are any less brilliant (far from it) but that there is just too much to know. The point is really much simpler, and has much more to do with the intelligent layman than with the Renaissance Savant.

Once, and not so long ago, it was reasonable for an educated person to be intellectually familiar with everything in his environment. Now, it’s become paradigmatic that no one person in the world understands all of the processes involved in the creation of a simple pencil. The comparison isn’t a value judgement, very few of us have any great need to produce pencils, and a lot more people can programme computers now than could in the 1800s, but all of this does illustrate a rather interesting philosophical shift.

The shift: we know longer know about things generally, we know about things specifically, or rather, specific things. Educated people in the past knew most of what there was to know about everything. Educated people to-day know a great deal about a handful of things, but not much about the rest.

Whatever there is to be said about the virtues of a well-rounded education, the shift was an absolutely necessary one. The body of human knowledge had simply grown to large to fit in any one human head. If people were perfectly rational, things might have gone on like that, the human world developing into an agglomeration of mutually indifferent specialists operating only within their own ideal division of labour, but things went in a slightly more difficult direction.

Rather than a world of experts in their spheres who leave other spheres to other experts and let that be the end of it, the split has evolved into a world of laymen with an almost religious awe of the magic of expertise, and experts who think nothing of practicing their magic by day, but who are just as ready as anyone else to gawk in the shackles of technological superstition by night.

Take a simple example: an older person has a computer problem. A young person is called. The young person may, and likely does, have no better an idea how to solve the problem than the older person, but they are more than willing to tinker around a bit and figure out a solution. But the older person cannot do this; he has completely abdicated the realm of computers to the ‘people who know about computers,’ even in cases where there is no reason at all why his personal initiative shouldn’t be enough to solve his problem. But he can’t bring himself to it. Prying into someone else’s specialty is no less than spitting at the ghost in the machine.

Perhaps this expert-layman polarity is more a feature of the last generation than the present one. In the last fifty years any number of social revolutions have risen to power, or authority from the experts and authorities and return it to the disenfranchised individual. But if this was our grandparents’ thesis and our parents’ antithesis, our synthesis ought to have some fairly organic relationship to it. It's something to consider.


  1. Do you think that for living in the age of information, far too many people know too little, at least in more developed nations? Considering the times that we live in, is the ratio of brilliant men to the average worker too little?

    *Side note: I often find myself checking this blog to see if you have updated

  2. Excuse me! Just because the coefficient of elasticity is economics, does not mean that it is not compelling!! Is he really the one who invented the concept?

  3. Walter, you have no idea how validated that makes me feel! And i agree with you about pervasive ignorance. I may well write about that if it would interest you, it certainly interests me.

    And Steven, Young did discover, or deduce, the coefficient of elasticity, but it was probably physical elasticity rather than economic elasticity, haha. And i fully agree, economics is always compelling!

    I'm not sure what the etiquette is about commenting on your own posts, but here you go!

  4. Screw etiquette! The blog will be even more awesome if there is some interaction between you and readers in the comment section.

  5. I agree with Steven! And you both now that this is Walter as in Walter Roman right? Not some other random blogger named Walter?