F. (François) Arago.

Biographies of distinguished scientific men (Volume 2) online

. (page 26 of 38)
Online LibraryF. (François) AragoBiographies of distinguished scientific men (Volume 2) → online text (page 26 of 38)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


contrary, what is usually called a man of the world.
He constantly frequented the best society in London.
The graces of his wit, the elegance of his manners, were
amply sufficient to make him remarkable. But when
we figure to ourselves those numerous assemblies in
which fifty different subjects in turn are skimmed over
in a few minutes, we may conceive what value would be
attached to one who was a true living library, from whom
every one could find, at the moment, an exact, precise,
substantial answer on all kinds of questions which they
could propose to him. Young was much occupied with
the fine arts. Many of his memoirs testify the profound

* This list, it should be borne in mind, is intended by the author
merely as a specimen of the vast catalogue which might be made of
Young's writings ; the reader will find ample details as to his innu-
merable pTOductions in Peacock's Life. — Translator.



CHARACTKR AND ATTAINMKNTS. 331

knowledge which he had happily acquired of the theory
of music. He carried out also to a great extent the tal-
ent of executing it ; and I believe it is certain that of all
known instruments, even including the Scottish bagpipe,
only one or two could be named on which he could not
play. His taste for painting developed itself during a
visit which he paid to Germany. There the magnificent
collection of Dresden absorbed his attention entirely ; for
he aspired not solely to the easy credit of connecting
together, without mistake, the name of such or such an
artist with such or such a painting ; the defects and the
characteristic qualities of the greatest masters, their fre-
quent changes of manner, the material objects which
they introduced into their works, the modifications which
those objects and the colours underwent in progress of
time, among other points, occupied him in succession.
Young, in one word, studied painting in Saxony, as he
had before studied languages in his own country, and as
he afterwards studied the sciences. Every thing, in fact,
was a subject of meditation and research. The univer-
sity contemporaries of the illustrious physicist recalled a
laughable instance of this trait of his mind. They re-
lated that entering his room one day, when for the first
time he had taken a lesson in dancing the minuet, at
Edinburgh, they found him occupied in tracing out
minutely with the rule and compasses, the route gone
through by the two dancers, and the different improve-
ments of which these figures seemed to him susceptible.

Young borrowed with happy effect, from the sect of
the Friends, to which he then belonged, the opinion that
the intellectual faculties of children differ originally from
each other much less than is commonly supposed. " Any
mnn can do what any other man has done," became his



332 THOMAS YOUNG.

favourite maxim. And further, never did he personally
himself recoil before trials of any kind to which he
wished to subject his system. The first time he mounted
a horse, in company with the grandson of Mr. Barclay,
the horseman who preceded them leapt a high fence.
Young wished to imitate him, but he fell at ten paces.
He remounted without saying a word, made a second
attempt, was again unseated, but this time was not
thrown further than on to the horse's neck, to which he
clung. At the third trial the young learner, as his
favourite motto taught, succeeded in executing what
another had done before him.* This experiment need
not have been i-eferred to here, but that it had been
repeated at Edinburgh, and afterwards at Gottingeu, and
carried out to a further extent beyond what might seem
credible. In one of these two cities Young soon after-
wards entered into a trial of skill with a celebrated rope-
dancer, in the other, (and in each case the result of a
challenge,) he acquired the art of executing feats on
horseback with remarkable skill, even in the midst of
consummate artistes, whose feats of agility attract every
evening such numerous crowds to the circus of Franconi.
Thus, those who are fond of drawing contrasts may, on
the one side, represent to themselves the timid Newton,t
never riding in a carriage, so much did the fear of being
upset preoccupy him, without holding to both the doors
with extended arms, and, on the other, his distinguished

* This anecdote seems at variance with what is stated on the
authority of a Cambridge contemporary of Young in Dr. Peacock's
Life, (p. 119), that he only once there attempted to follow the hounds,
Avheii a severe fall prevented any further exhibitions of the kind. —
Trcmilator.

t This practice has been described as that of Newton, but the
motive assigned bv Arago is novel.



YOUNG AS A PHYSICIAN. 333

rival galloping on the backs of two horses with all the
confidence of an equestrian by profession.

In England, a physician, if he does not wish to lose
the confidence of the public, ought to abstain from occu-
pying himself with any scientific or literary research
which may be thought foreign to the art of curing dis-
eases. Young for a long time did homage to this preju-
dice. His writings appeared under an anonymous veil.
This veil, it is true, was very transparent. Two con-
secutive letters of a certain Latin motto served succes-
sively in regular order as the signature to each memoir.
But Young communicated the three Latin words to all
his friends both in his own country and abroad, without
enjoining secrecy on any one.

Besides, who could be ignorant that the distinguished
author of the theory of interferences was the Foreign
Secretary of the Royal Society of London ; that he gave,
in the Theatre of the Royal Institution, a course of lec-
tures on mathematical physics ; that, associated with
Sir H. Davy, he published a journal of the sciences,
&c. ? and moreover, we must say that his anonymous
disguise was not rigorously observed even in his smaller
memoirs, and on important occasions, when, for instance,
in 1807, the two volumes in quarto appeared of eight
hundred or nine hundred pages each, in which all
branches of natural philosophy were treated in a manner
so new and profound, the self-love of the author made
him forget the interests of the physician, and the name
of Young in large letters replaced the two small Italics
whose series was then terminated, and which would
have figured in a rather ridiculous manner in the title-
page of this colo>sal work.

Young had not then, as a physician, either in London



334 THOMAS YOUNG.

or at Worthing, where he passed the sea-bathing season,
any extended practice. The public found him, in fact,
too scientific. We must also avow that his public lec-
tures on medicine, those, for instance, which he deliv-
ered at St. George's Hospital, were generally but ill-
attended. It has been said, to explain this, that his
lectures were too dry, too full of matter, and that they
were beyond the apprehension of ordinary understandings.
But might not the want of success be rather ascribed to
the freedom, not very common, with which Young
pointed out the inextricable difficulties which encounter
us at every step in the study of the numerous disorders
of our frail machine ?

Would any one expect at Paris, and especially in an
age when every one seeks to attain his end quickly and
without labour, that a professor of the faculty would
retain many auditors if he were to commence with these
words, which I borrow literally from Dr. Young : —

" No study is so complicated as that of medicine ; it
exceeds the limits of human intelligence. Those physi-
cians who precipitately go on without trying to compre-
hend what they observe, are often just as much advanced
as those who give themselves up to generalizations
hastily made on observations in regard to which all
analogy is at fault." And if the Professor, continuing
in the same style, should add, " In the lottery of medi-
cine the chances of the possessor of ten tickets must
evidently be greater than those of the possessor of five,"
— when they believed themselves engaged in a lottery,
would those of his auditors whom the first phrase had
not driven away, be at all disposed to make any great
efforts to procure for themselves more tickets, or, to
explain the meaning of our Professor — the greatest
amount of knowledge possible ?



YOUNG AS A PHYSICIAN. 335

In spite of his knowledge, perhaps even from tlie very
cause that it was so extensive, Young was totally want-
ing in confidence at the bedside of the patient. Then
the mischievous effects which might eventually result
from the action of the medicine even the most clearly
called for presented themselves in a mass to his mind ;
seemed to counterbalance the favourable chances which
might attend the use of them ; and thus threw him into
a state of indecision, no doubt very natural, yet on which
the public will always put an unfavourable construc-
tion.

The same timidity showed itself in all the works of
Young which treated on medical subjects.* This man,
so eminently remarkable for the boldness of his scientific
conceptions, gives here no more than a bare enumeration
of facts. He seems hardly convinced of the soundness
of his thesis, either when he attacks the celebrated
Dr. Eadcliffe, whose whole secret in the most brilliant
and successful practice was, as he has himself said, to
employ remedies exactly the reverse of the usual way :
or when he combats Dr. Brown, who found himself, as
he says, in the disagreeable necessity of recognizing, and
that in accordance with the oflScial documents of an hos-
pital attended by the most eminent physicians, that, on
the average, fevers left to their natural course are neither

* This timidity in medical speculation is entire]}' borne out by the
tenor of Young's intellectual character as exhibited in such forcible
lineaments in the portrait presented to us by Dr. Peacock. His mind
was essentially cast in a matter of fact positive, demonstrative mould;
hence all subjects of abstract or doubtful inquiry, in which probabili-
ties alone could be estimated, or when the conclusions were to be the
result of moral discrimination, were utterly unsuited to him. His
medical character has been viewed, however, in a much higher light
by Dr. Peacocli, who has sought to combat the unfavourable impres-
sions here advanced. See especially p. 213 and p. -^2.— Translator.



336 THOMAS YOUNG.

more severe nor of longer duration than those treated by
the best methods.

In 1818, Young, having been named Secretary to the
Board of Longitude, abandoned entirely the practice of
medicine to give himself up to the close superintendence
of the celebrated periodical work known under the name
of the Nautical Almanac. From this date the Jo^irnal
of the Royal Institution gave every quarter his numerous
dissertations on the most important problems of naviga-
tion and asti'onomy. A volume entitled Illustration of
the Mecanique Celeste of Laplace., a scientific discussion
on the tides, amply attested that Young did not consider
the employment he had accepted as a sinecure. This
employment became nevertheless to him a source of
unceasing disgust. The Nautical Almanac had always
been from its commencement a work exclusively des-
tined to the service of the navy. Some persons de-
manded that it ought to be made, besides, a complete
astronomical ephemeris. The Board of Longitude,
whether right or wrong, not having shown itself a strong
partisan of the projected change, found itself suddenly
the object of the most violent attacks. The journals of
every party, AVhig or Tory, took part in the conflict.

We were no longer to view it as a union of such men
as Davy, Wollaston, Young, Herschel, Kater, and Pond,
but an assembly of individuals (I quote the words), '' who
obeyed a Bceotian influence." The Nautical Almanac,
hitherto so renowned, was now declared to have become
an object of shame to the English nation. If an error
of the press were discovered, such as there must be in
any collection of figures at all voluminous, the British
navy, from the smallest bark up to the colossal three-
decker, misled by an incorrect figure, would all together
be engulfed in the ocean, &c.



NAUTICAL ALMANAC. 337

It lias been pretended that the jDrincipal promoter of
these foolish exaggerations did not perceive such serious
errors in the Nautical Almanac until after he had un-
successfully attempted himself to obtain a place in the
Board of Longitude. I know not whether the fact was
so. In any case, I would not make myself the echo of
the malicious commentaries to which it gave rise ; I
ought not to forget, in fact, that for many years past that
member of the Royal Society to whom I allude has
nobly devoted a part of his large fortune to the advance-
ment of science. This commendable astronomer, like all
men of science whose thoughts are concentrated on one
sole object, fell into the error, which I do not pretend to
excuse, of measuring through a magnifying glass the
importance of the projects lie had conceived ; but that
with which above all he must be reproached is, that he
did not foresee that the hyperbolic language of his attacks
would be taken literally ; that he forgot that at all epochs
and in all countries there are a great number of persons
who having nothing to console them for their littleness
seize, as a prey, on all occasions of scandal, and under
the mask of zeal for the public good enjoy the delio-Jit of
being ignoble defamers of those of their contemporaries
whose success has been proclaimed by flime. In Rome
he whose ofBce it was to insult the triumphant conqueror
was altogether a slave ; in Loudon it was a member of
the House of Commons, from whom the men of science
received a cruel affront. An orator notorious for his
prejudices, but who had hitherto vented his bitterness
only against productions of French origin, attacked the
most celebrated names in England, and retailed against
them in open parliament puerile accusations, with a
laughable gravity. Ministers whose eloquence was ex-

6EC. SEK. 15



338 THOMAS YOUNG.

ercised for hours on the privileges of a rotten borough,
did not pronounce a single word in favour of genius.
The Board of Longitude was suppressed without oppo-
sition. The next day, it is true, the wants of an innu-
merable marine service made their imperative voice
heard, and one of the men of science who had been dis-
placed, the former Secretary of the Board, Dr. Young,
found himself recalled to his old labours. Paltry repar-
ation ! Would the man of science feel less the separa-
tion from his illustrious colleagues, — would the man of
feeling less perceive that the noble fruits of human intel-
lect were subjected to tariff by the representatives of the
country, in pounds, shillings, and pence, like sugar, pep-
per, or cinnamon ?

The health of our colleague, which had already become
somewhat precarious, declined from this sad epoch with
fearful rapidity. Skilful physicians by whom he was
attended soon lost hope. Young himself had a con-
sciousness that his end was approaching, and saw it
come with an admirable calmness. Until his last hour
he occupied himself without intermission on an Egyptian
dictionary then in the press, and which was not published
till after his death. When his powers did not permit
him any longer to sit up, or to emi)loy a pen, he cor-
rected the proofs with a pencil. One of the last acts of
his life was to exact the suppression of a small publi-
cation written with talent, by a friendly hand, and
directed against all those who had contributed to the
destruction of the Board of Longitude.* Young died

* The whole account of the transactions connected with the abo-
lition of the Board of Longitude must be received with some qualifi-
cation. Arago writes on the subject in his usual vehement tone, and
in the feeling in which the whole affair would naturally be viewed by
a foreigner, perhaps not intimately acquainted with the minute points



BOARD OF LONGITUDE. 339

suiTouncled by a family by whom he was adored, May
10, 1829, barely at the age of fifty-six. Examination
showed that he suffered from ossification of the aorta.

of the case, and the somewhat different relative position occupied by
the parties in England to that in which they might stand in France.
It may be right very briefly to point out a few particulars in the case
which are necessary for forming a correct impression of it. The
Board of Longitude, oi-iginally instituted, as its name implied, for one
specific object, which it was considered had been sufficiently attained,
was in 1818 remodelled by Act of Parliament, when Dr. Young was
appointed secretary to the Board and superintendent of the Nautical
Almanac; the late Mr. F. Baily, whose eminence in astronomical
science may perhaps be dated from that event, strongly pointed out
the numerous defects of the Nautical Almanac; this led to some con-
troversy of rather a sharp nature between himself and Dr. Young,
who defended the existing system ; other astronomers joined in the
desire for these and even more extensive improvements, all which
(v/ith one slight concession) wej'e steadily opposed by Br. Young.
Among these advocates for reform were several members of the Board
itself, who urged them at its meetings. There was also a very preva-
lent impression, even among its own members, that the Board was
not well constituted, and might have been capable of much better
service to the nation if its functions were less restricted and the selec-
tion of its members placed on a better footing. In other quarters im-
pressions unfavourable to its utility were prevalent ; and it can hardly
be matter of surprise that when the Board was itself divided in opin-
ion, the public or the legislature should entertain doubts of its utility,
or even hostile feelings towards it. What were the precise notions of
the government, or the machinations bj' which they were influenced,
it is impossible to say; but it is certain that in 1828, chiefly through
the influence of 5Ir. Croker, its dissolution was determined upon and
carried by Act of Parhament without any opposition being attempted.
Instead, however, of an enlarged Board with increased powers, three
scientific advisers of the Admiralty were appointed, of whom Dr.
Young was one, retaining the superintendence of the Nautical Alma-
nac; a system which has been since remodelled in accordance with
the report of a committee appointed out of the Astronomical Society.
Dr. Young appears all along to have been affected only by the per-
sonal acrimony of some of the attacks upon himself in relation to the
editorship of the Nautical Almanac, and not at all by any feeling for
the Board of Longitude, as Arago would regard it.



340 THOMAS YOUNG.

I have not dwelt too long on the task imposed, on me,
if I have brought out, as I wished to do, the importance

Thnt Board, as already observed, was divided against itself, and it
therefore fell. It was never upheld on the only right ground. Neither
the Board nor the friends of science sufficiently urged the strong and
irresistible claims which they might have preferred to the government
of the country, that " a council of science" with extended powers,
properly selected and adequately remunerated, would be the appro-
priate adjunct of the government of a coiintry all whose resources are
so powerfully developed in exclusive dependence on the applications
of science.

The government would thus have had the means of sound scientific
advice constantly at hand, of which experience, proves they are in
daily want on every emergency; and which they obtain by asking
the gratuitous services of men of science, and the crown would have
possessed the means of making a graceful aclinowledgment of the
services, and paying a just tribute to the genius, of men devoted to
the higher branches of the abstract sciences, which are of a nature
incapable in themselves of affording any kind of remuneration, or in
the ordinary course leading to anj' of those honours or preferments
which await eminence in other professions. — Translator.

The reader may be referred for details of the questions here consid-
ered to the following documents: —

1. " Astronomical Tables and Remarks for 1822, published Decem-
ber, 1821," by F. Baily, Esq., with "Remarks ou the present
defective state of the Nautical Almanac.''''

2. A Reply to these Remarks appeared iu Mr. Brande's Quartei'ly
Journal of Science, April, 1822. (Attributed to Dr. Young.)

3. Practical Observations on the Nautical Almanac, &c., by Jas.
South, F. R. S. 1822.

d. Reply to a Letter in the Morning Chronicle relative to the Gov-
ernment and Astronomical Science, &c. by the same. 1829.

5. Refutation of Misstatements, &c., in a paper presented to the
Admiralty by Dr. T. Young, and printed by order of the House
of Commons, by the same. 1829.

6. Further Remarks on the present defective state of the Nautical
Almanac, &c., by F. Baily, Esq., F. R. S., &c. 1829.

7. Report of the Committee of the Astronomical Society relative to
the improvement of the Nautical Almanac, adopted by the Coun-
cil of the Society and approved and ordered to be carried into
effect by the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, 1830. Me-
moirs of Astronomical Society, vol. iv. p. 447.



BOARD OF LONGITUDE. 341

and novelty of the admirable law of interferences.
Young is now placed before your eyes as one of the
most illustrious men of science in whom England may
justly take pride. Your thoughts, anticipating my words,
may perhaps perceive already, in the recital of the just
honours shown to the author of so beautiful a discovery,
the peroration of this historical notice. These anticipa-
tions, I regret to say, will not be realized. The death
of Young has in his own country created very Httle sen-
sation. The doors of Westminster* Abbey, so easily
accessible to titled mediocrity, remained shut upon a man
of genius, who was not even a baronet. It was in the
village of Farnborough, in the modest tomb of the family
of his wife, that the remains of Thomas Young were
deposited. The indifference of the English nation for

8. A motion was made in the House of Commons, February 23,
1829, for certain Returns i-especting the Board of Longitude and
the Nautical Almanac, &c.
The Returns were made and printed consisting of (1) "A Memo-
randum of a Statement made to the Chancellor of the Exchequer
for reforming the Nautical Almanac, and establishment of a new
Board of Longitude. (2) A Paper read at the Board, by J. Her-
schel, Esq. (3) A Report on a Memorandum, &c. by Thomas
Young, M. D. In the last Dr. Young makes answer to what he
considers objections raised in the " Memorandum," and also
replies to those of Mr. Baily and Mr. South. Sir J. South's
Pamphlet contains the Memorandum, — the objections raised or
inferred by Dr. Young — his replies to them — all which are
severely criticized.
At p. 60 is a curious account of some discussions at Sir H. Davy's

soiree between Sir J. South and Dr. Young.
* The frequenters of Poets' Corner need not be reminded that lit-
erature and science are not excluded from their share of funereal
honours in Westminster Abbe}'. M. Arago here, as in some other
passages, may naturally be a little incorrect in referring to national
usages. The delay which occurred in regard to Young's monument,
is however not fully explained by Dean Peacock. (See Life of
Young, p. 485.) — Translator.



342 THOMAS YOUNG.

those scientific labours which ought to add so mucli to
its glory, is a rare anomaly, of Avhich it would be curious
to trace the causes. I should be wanting in frankness,
I should be the panegyrist, not the historian, if I did not
avow, that in general Young did not suificiently accom-
modate himself to the capacity of his readers ; that the
greater part of the writings for which the sciences are
indebted to him, are justly chargeable with a certain
obscurity. But the neglect to which they were long
consigned did not depend solely on this cause.

The exact sciences have an advantage over the works
of art or imagination, which has been often pointed out.
The truths of which they consist remain constant through
ages without suffering in any respect from the caprices of
fashion or the decline of taste : but thus, when once these
researclies rise into more elevated regions of thought,
on liow many competent judges of their merits can we
reckon ? "When Richelieu let loose against the great
Corneille a crowd of that class of men whom envy of the
merit of others renders furious, the Parisians vehemently



Online LibraryF. (François) AragoBiographies of distinguished scientific men (Volume 2) → online text (page 26 of 38)