Book Review: “The Last Man Who Knew Everything” by Andrew Robinson

This book is a biographical work about, as the subtitle indicates, “Thomas Young, The Anonymous Polymath Who Proved Newton Wrong, Explained How We See, Cured the Sick, AND Deciphered the Rosetta Stone, among other Feats of Genius.”


Rating: 3.5/5 Stars

Who it’s for: Anyone curious about the benefits and drawbacks of a multi-faceted professional life and/or who wants to read about a truly remarkable—yet little known—man.

Readability: MEDIUM. At 239 pages, it’s not overly long. What makes it a more challenging read is not its length but the way it’s written and the high number of quotes written in 18th and 19th century English. The result is a significant number of run on sentences that cause what I call reading hiccups: having to reread a sentence multiple times to fully appreciate its meaning. These hiccups are the main reason for the book's lower rating, though I found its contents fascinating enough to keep reading.

What I liked about it: Andrew Robinson chose to organize Young’s most influential life events and accomplishments both chronologically and by subject matter. Given Young was a polymath, this makes a great deal of sense: his interest in various subjects overlapped and sometimes his focus on any single one ebbed and flowed over time.

What I didn’t like about it: Touching again on readability, the hiccups I mentioned above interrupt the flow of the book, a bit like a commercial unexpectedly interrupts the flow of a YouTube video.

Where to find it: Amazon…or possibly at the library

“The Last Man Who Knew Everything” Teaches Us The Value of Learning from Others

You’ve probably never heard of Thomas Young. There’s a good reason for that: he discovered many things that still affect modern life to this day, but because he was not a specialist in any given field, his name didn’t tend to be associated with the discoveries he made or contributed to.

Thankfully, though he wanted credit for his discoveries, he never worried about much beyond that. He wasn’t making discoveries to become famous. He made discoveries because he was observant and blessed with a rabbid curiosity across a number of subjects.

In this book, Robinson makes a few things clear about Young that we can all learn from:

  1. Whatever his focus at any given time, he always took a deep dive into that subject
  2. He read everything he could get his hands on to understand a field of study before attempting to take it further
  3. When it came to what to study next, he naturally followed his interest as opposed to focusing his time and efforts on what society would expect him to do
  4. He believed knowledge was meant to be shared freely
  5. He cared more about information being right than he was about saving face

Here’s a closer look at each of these behaviours:

#1. Going All In - The Deep Dive

Young was still a boy when he became fascinated with Greek Mythology, which turned learning Greek into a love of languages overall. Taking deep dives such as that one became a trademark of his*, as he moved on to explore, among other subjects:

  • medicine and the anatomy of the eye
  • physics through his study and advancement of our understanding of the nature of light
  • egyptology, leading to his ability to decipher the Rosetta Stone

We can all learn from his transitent periods of tunnel vision for a given subject. He would devour information for hours, weeks, months on end and emerge with a unique view on a topic. 

It’s easy to dismiss others’ ideas and he did the opposite: he read everything there was to read and then and only then did he state his position or hypotheses. It’s a great approach…and it’s exceedingly rare.

#2. Learning What Came Before Helps Us Innovate

These deep dives are what enabled him to innovate because he was able to familiarize himself with everything that worked and didn’t work in the studies of previous scholars on any given subject. Why repeat the mistakes of others when we can simply focus on trying what’s never been considered or done before? Makes sense! Why, then, is this approach so rare?

[I]t is amazing that in 1807 [at the age of 34] he managed to achieve as much as he did, guided by his broad and deep knowledge of the theories and experiments of both earlier and contemporary scientists, by this own experiments and, most important of all, by his formidable intuition.
— Andrew Robinson, "The Last Man Who Knew Everything" (2006), p. 128.

#3. Continuous Learning & Focusing On What Interests Us = A Winning Combination

We’re repeatedly told that we should be lifelong learners, that learning doesn’t end once we have the certificate or diploma we were working towards. But learning for the sake of learning just seems like an act of futility, unless we’re learning something we’re passionate about. When we study something we think is exciting, it can feel more like play or entertainment than “work.” Our passion and curiosity drive us to learn and we look forward to investing in that activity as opposed to seeing it as just some other item on our to do list. Not only that, but we’re more likely to retain information we’re interested in!

And that’s what Young did. He followed his interests and would spend hours upon hours on various topics, even to the point of ignoring the curriculum and activities he was supposed to follow and focus on as a student. We may not be able to do that as we dive into formal educational pursuits, but we can at least control what we choose to learn to some extent. We’ll be better off in the long run if we do.

#4. Sharing Knowledge & Information Makes Everyone Better Off

Young believed that everyone should be able to learn about anything they want to. He was such an advocate of equal access to information that he insisted that his lectures be open to women at the all-male universities. To him, keeping women away from educational pursuits was a purposeful way to keep them ignorant and subservient. I guess you could say he was a man ahead of his time even when it came to his views on the equality of the sexes!

His love for learning, his own and that of others, also lead him to author books and encyclopedic entries on a vast number of subjects. He would take a deep dive in given subjects and summarize them for others’ consumption because he—more than most, it seemed—appreciated the power of access to knowledge.

Indeed, much of his sharing of information helped him move forward in his own research. “Talking out” his theories and experiments with others often lead him to breakthroughs. He also reciprocated, serving as a sounding board for other researchers and never hesitated to offer his assistance in that respect.

Young certainly had the odd idea stolen here and there, but I think it would be hard to argue, given his accomplishments, that he was worse off for sharing his knowledge and ideas openly.

#5. Information Being Correct Is More Important than “Being Right”

When Young thought himself wrong or was proven wrong, at least momentarily, he was quick to support the conclusion when he saw it proven out. Of course, he vehemently defended his research and conclusions when he knew they were on solid footing, but he never hesitated to call himself out for being wrong. He cared more about the truth than for the need to be right.**

We often confuse opinion with fact, especially in this day and age of “the sound bite.” When someone feels able to admit they were wrong, we respect them for it. We also have greater respect for someone who actively seeks information that can transform an opinion into a solid fact-based position. 

Being wrong in the moment is uncomfortable, but it’s far more comfortable than having to keep up appearances for a lifetime by defending untenable positions.

Bottom Line

“The Last Man Who Knew Everything” is an important book for anyone interested in exploring the power of continuous learning and how one man made his life much richer as a perpetual student. 

Young may not be remembered much in history, but does that really matter when what he did do was lead a passionate and interesting life, all while leaving the world better off for it?

I don’t know about you but I wouldn’t mind following in his footsteps, even just a little bit.

More books along the themes covered above:

If you're looking for others books that explore some of the themes in this biography, some of these recommendations might be of interest: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig; Strategic Intuition by William Duggan PhD, Deep Work by Cal Newport, RAPT by Winifred Gallagher, Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Do Over by Jon Acuff, and on living the polymath life: How to Be Everything by Emilie Wapnick.

*I do want to note that these deep dives were rarely a one-shot occurence. Thomas would often revisit subjects when triggered by new information or by a sudden pull back into a given subject matter.

**Incidentally, at least on one occasion, when Young accepted that one of his conclusions was a mistake—namely his theory on the focusing mechanism of the eye—it turned out to be anything but.

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