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The Men Who Knew Everything

Updated: Jul 24, 2022

by Vincent Guy

Drawing by Tina Moskal


But Vincent, you know everything”. My colleague was taken aback to find there was indeed a serious gap in my collection of mental trivia. Working in a business training company, with clients from many industries and many countries, general knowledge was a handy thing to have. In the days before Wikipedia some people saw me as the go-to person. I did have a Master of Arts degree as well as a Master of Science, though the former had nothing to do with the arts and the latter little basis in science. In reality, it is impossible to know everything; always was and always will be.


For example, one third of my MA was Politics, including some study of US American elections. When Trump surprised everyone by winning the presidency in 2016 though the majority voted for Clinton, I knew there was something called the Electoral College System that had produced this skewed result. But I’ll be blowed if I could explain even to myself how this came about. I tried again just now: the numbers simply don’t make sense.


Necessary, if not sufficient, is to have a background structure in your mind. If a political expert explained the Trump phenomenon to me, I could probably follow more than if I had skipped that electoral coursework. It would slot into something in my head. In a different field I have problems remembering the names of the plants in my garden, even some I lovingly folded into my native earth with my own hands. But I have no background, no foundation in horticultural matters, no branches to hang the names on. A similar limit governs my navigations in the field of Science. Though I dropped school science at 14, I’m fascinated by the whole business and these days read many popular books on evolution, geology, even quantum physics. Just recently I picked up a volume from the bottom of a pile on the floor, got engrossed, pleased to find I could follow a fair bit. Only when I got to page 300 did I come across a phrase that flashed up as déja vu. Scales fell from my eyes as I realised I had read the book before, without active recall of any of it.


C P Snow (1905-1980) lamented the gap between “The Two Cultures”: science and arts. As a physics prof. at Cambridge as well as a successful novelist, he capably bridged the gap himself. But there is an asymmetry. Few people in the arts and humanities – including me – could pass Snow’s test of understanding the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, whereas many if not most scientists can hold their own in conversation about Bach, Balzac or the Battle of Borodino. In our day Professor Steve Jones frequently publishes science books of the kind I enjoy and can understand. While his specialist field is evolution, he dots his texts with references to things like Gilgamesh, R L Stevenson and Proust’s “A la Recherche du Temps Perdu”, with a sly hint that he’s read all seven volumes. Meanwhile the scientific material, crystal-clear and tailored for popular consumption, is on every page.


A number of people have been called “the man who knew everything”, but the phrase should be treated with caution, if not scepticism. An early candidate was Aristotle who certainly covered a wide horizon. His works examined issues of philosophy, logic, literary theory, animal life, politics, and more. While we now recognise a few errors, such as the idea that some birds self-generate every spring from river mud, most of his findings stood the test of time for over 2000 years. But of course he knew nothing of outer space or microbiology, of the Americas or Australia. Leonardo da Vinci, the very model of the ‘Renaissance Man’ is another, not only a painter of genius, a military engineer and architect, but a practising anatomist centuries ahead of his time. Here again it would be easy, even trivial, to point to the things he did not know, even within the limits of his century.


Two 19th century intellectuals have been labelled “The Man Who Knew Everything”: Thomas Young (1773–1829) and Sabine Baring-Gould (1834-1924).


Young, like Leonardo, did ground-breaking work in several very distinct fields, including medicine, physics and linguistics. A practising medical doctor with major discoveries on blood circulation to his name, he was expert in the world beneath the microscope. He was also the first person to put forward the wave theory of light, a century before it became a key part of quantum physics. Deploying his mastery of more than 100 languages, he pioneered the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics using the Rosetta Stone*. The stone bears a text in three very different scripts: Hieroglyphic, Demotic and Ancient Greek, providing the glint of a key to the Egyptian picture writing. But it’s a Frenchman, Champollion, who is usually cited as the lock-picker of the hieroglyphs. Not only was he a more unscrupulous, ambitious man, quick to claim precedence, slow to acknowledge the efforts of others, he was above all the specialist: the hieroglyphic puzzle was his entire universe. Young, by contrast, was scattering his energies more widely across a myriad of interests, writing for example more than a hundred articles for the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Thus the specialist, who knows more and more about less and less, is likely to command much that the polymath cannot hope to grasp. The Jack of all Trades is inevitably, to some degree, master of none. (See A. Robinson “The last man who knew Everything: Thomas Young”, 2006)


Then there is Baring-Gould. Though not a towering genius like Leonardo or Young, the range of subjects he commanded was extraordinary. An ordained minister of the Church of England, he explored and wrote about everything from philology to folklore, from hymnology and hagiography to metallurgy and musical theory. Having analysed the Pyrenees, he dug deep into the English salt mining industry as well as biblical archaeology. Among his 130 published works were 16 volumes on the lives of the saints, several on the Roman Caesars and one on Emperor Napoleon. He cast his net into the supernatural too: The Book of Were-wolves joined essays about ghosts. And this list only touches the surface. Now more or less forgotten, he was perhaps an oddity rather than a high achiever.


Nearer to our times comes Enrico Fermi (1901–1954), described by many as knowing everything. His main achievement was to mastermind the world’s first nuclear reactor, then to play a leading role in the Manhattan Project, the building of the first atomic bomb. His work did not however stray far from the world of physics and mathematics. The breadth of his knowledge lay in spanning the complexities of atomic theory and the practicalities of engineering. A piece of later research won him the Nobel prize, but then he had to apologise for a substantial error in it. Even Nobel laureates nod. (See D N Schwartz, “The Last Man who Knew Everything: Enrico Fermi”, 2017)


Unsurprisingly perhaps, I can find few references to “the woman who knew everything”. Most are in works of fiction or ‘romance’. Moliere’s “Les Femmes Savantes” comes to mind, which, again unsurprisingly, is a satire making fun of upper-class ladies who fancied themselves as intellectuals. One real-life example emerges: Clémence Royer (1830-1902), a self-educated Frenchwoman who set out to command the whole of contemporary human knowledge. Renting a modest apartment near a large library, she simply sat down and mastered every book on the shelves. A milestone in her career was translating Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” into French, adding her own insights on the evolution of homo sapiens years before Darwin himself dared to do so. (See Aline Demars, Clémence Royer, l’Intrépide, 2005).


Professor Brian Cox might qualify as a Renaissance Man of today, being a nuclear physicist, television presenter and successful rock musician, as well as hosting a long-running radio comedy show about science. Interviewed in The Times (23 April 2022), he said:

The way nature forces you to think is a transferable skill – it’s the recognition we don’t know everything.”

He suggested our politicians might benefit from practising that kind of humility.


Bill Bryson, an American writer living in the UK, established his name as a travel author, then made a foray into writing about science. His first book in that genre was carefully named “A Short History of Nearly Everything” (2003). A recurrent theme in the book is the limitations of science. A graphic image has stayed with me of the tiny extent of humanity’s exploration beneath the earth’s crust. Yes, we have instruments that can assess the planet’s core, but physical penetration to date is equivalent to scratching the skin of an apple. Even with the whole of human knowledge at your fingertips, you really wouldn’t know very much.


Language teachers recognise a difference between Passive and Active Knowledge. That’s to say, you will always understand more than you can speak. You only need a quite small vocabulary to speak effectively. Even in your own tongue, you will follow the meaning of vastly more words than you can utter.

If this article were written in another European language, there would be a further distinction to draw: the difference between Connaître v Savoir, or in German Kennen v. Wissen. The first is a kind of nodding acquaintance, the second a fuller understanding. There are some echoes of this in English. A conning tower or a reconnaissance foray are just for ticking boxes. The borrowed phrases Savoir faire and Savoir vivre suggest a deeper grasp of the world, as does the word wisdom. Arabic also recognises two forms of knowledge: knowing a person, place, or fact, is عرف- transliterated as aearafa, whereas deeper learning of weightier matters is علم– aealama. However, Arabic is one of the many things I know dangerously little about, so treat this comment with caution.


What then is knowledge? Where does it come from? Where does it fit into our experience of the world? Let me sketch out a response with this ladder:


Noise

Random, shapeless; stuff happens

Data

Elements of noise are collected, checked, counted; junk noise is discarded

Facts

Data get organised, collated, compared; significance emerges

Knowledge

Facts are structured, held together by hypotheses, interpretations, theories; the elements make sense, can be applied and interrelated, leading to new questions; a basis for understanding the world

Wisdom

Knowledge that guides decisions, suggests answers; leading towards understanding of ourselves


Let me leave the last words to the students of Victorian Oxford who mocked their Professor Benjamin Jowett (1817–1893) thus:


First come I. My name is Jowett. There's no knowledge but I know it. I am Master of this College, What I don't know isn't knowledge.



*If you’ve been to the British Museum you may have seen the Rosetta, and its many offspring in the gift shop. My wife has a nice pair of Rosetta-Stone socks. The British Museum will be opening a major exhibition, “Hieroglyphs: unlocking Ancient Egypt”, in October 2022.








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