Degrees of Separation

An Account of Some Recent Discoveries in Hieroglyphical Literature and Egyptian Antiquities, by Thomas YoungThomas Young (1773-1829) was a polymath sometimes described as ‘the last man who knew everything’ from medicine to optics to the decipherment of hieroglyphs – the theory being that the explosion of knowledge in so many disparate fields at the end of the eighteenth century meant that it was impossible to become a true polymath thereafter. (By way of analogy, I remember being told several years ago by one of our IT colleagues that his predecessor had actually surfed the entirety of the web, and it had taken him a fortnight. This must have been in the early 1990s – can anyone confirm whether this was possible at the time, or is it an urban (or virtual?) myth?) The Victorians may no longer have been able to know everything, but something that we are discovering as we build our lists of titles from CLC is that almost everyone in the intellectual elite of the nineteenth century knew everyone else, and right across the divide which in more recent times has been thought to separate the Two Cultures.

Take the Marquis de Laplace (1749–1827), mathematician and physicist: he said that he knew three women who he felt really understood his pioneering work – ‘These are yourself, Mrs Somerville, Caroline Herschel and a Mrs Greig of whom I know nothing.’ In fact, he only knew two such women, as Mrs Somerville had been Mrs Greig during her first marriage. Mrs Somerville knew very large numbers of distinguished people – among others, the Herschel family, Mrs Marcet, Miss Edgeworth, Mr and Mrs Browning, Lord Brougham, Longfellow, Faraday, Rossini, Frances Cobbe, Cavour, De Morgan, Sedgwick, Ampère, Becquerel, and Charles Darwin. Darwin knew Ruskin, Ruskin knew Sir Charles Hallé (and astonished him by saying that the most beautiful piece of music he knew was ‘Home, Sweet Home’). Hallé knew Brahms, and Sir Robert Mayer, who died in 1985 in his 106th year, had, as a child, played a Brahms piano piece for the composer. Finally, I (with my children) was in the audience at one of the last Robert Mayer Children’s Concerts which Sir Robert himself attended – the last may be stretching the point a bit, but we have got from 1749 to 1985 through the interlinking lives of only seven people, five of whom were contemporaries in the close-knit intellectual and cultural milieu of nineteenth-century Europe. And that’s before we even get started on the staggeringly widely connected  and influential Sir Joseph Banks, who deserves a blog of his own . . .


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7 Responses to Degrees of Separation

  1. Pingback: The Man Who Knew Almost Everyone « Cambridge Library Collection Blog

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