Thomas Young and Vladimir Nabokov

Occasionally I intend to post stories that are unrelated to the main topics in my book, but reflect one of my other passions i.e. history. This is a post that first appeared in The Norwalk Patch:

To many scientists the words “interdisciplinary research” refer to cross-fertilization of ideas and experiments within subcategories of their chosen field, or collaborating with clinicians, engineers, and physicists. Usually, when scientists strayed into areas of music, film, and literature, or when artists strayed into science, it was within the framework of communicating the latest discoveries to laymen or using creative images to transmit the impact of the latest breakthroughs. Another possibility is simply demonstrating the beauty of nature for its own sake. By and large, the motto seems to be “to each his own.”

History has provided us with figures that break the traditional mold, either in the breadth of their scientific expertise or by their achievements in the seemingly separate worlds of science and literature. Thomas Young, an English polymath (1773-1829), is an example of the former, and Vladimir Nabokov, a Russian-American author (1899-1977), is an example of the latter.

Nabokov is, of course, widely known for his novel, Lolita, composed while on butterfly collecting trips in the western United States. He combined teaching “all things Russian” with his interest in lepidoptery at both Wellesley College and Harvard University. Harvard students may be familiar with Nabokov’s collection of male butterfly genitalia stored at the university’s Museum of Natural History and his expertise in microscopic comparisons of these specimens. Several butterfly and moth species, as well as the genus Nabokovia were named in his honor.

Thomas Young broke boundaries in many areas of science. He established the wave theory of light, overcoming a century-old view that light was a particle—an assessment made by Sir Isaac Newton. The roll call of his achievements includes founding the field of physiological optics, establishing the theory of capillary phenomena based on the principle of surface tension as well as related equations, making contributions to haemodynamics, medical writings on consumptive diseases, and developing a rule for children’s drug dosages. Young’s interest in Egyptian hieroglyphics was evidence that this genius did not only confine his mind to scientific matters. His publication,Account of the Recent Discoveries in Hieroglyphic Literature and Egyptian Antiquities, may have influenced the Frenchman, Jean-François Champollion, who deciphered the Rosetta Stone.

Although Young and Nabokov were completely different in terms of temperament, interests, and accomplishments, one might argue that both flourished as creative individuals because interests and success in one field stimulated success and further accomplishments in other areas. Stephen Jay Gould, noted paleontologist and essayist, held an alternative view that may apply to both Nabokov and Young, namely, success in science and other fields may be rooted in a love of detail, contemplation, and symmetry.


Iraqi-born optical pioneer

Snapshots of ephemeral events that fingerprint different biological phenomena are within reach thanks to the generation of ultrashort bursts of light produced by attosecond (10-18 seconds) lasers. At a cutting-edge laser laboratory in Saudi Arabia, the properties of light will be pushed to this extreme in the analysis of protein and nucleic acids in blood samples from cancer patients and in other studies.1 Since the United Nations has designated 2015 as the Year of Light and Light-based Technologies, it is worthwhile remembering the pioneers that enabled the development of light-based technologies ranging from the bulb to the attosecond laser. In a Nature commemorative issue, Prof. Khalili (University of Surrey in Guildford, UK) revisits the major contributions to optical principles made by Iraqi-born mathematician and astronomer, Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥasan ibn al-Haytham   (Ibn al-Haytham; born c. 965, Basra, Iraq—died c. 1040, Cairo, Egypt). Imprisoned by a Fatimid caliph, ibn al-Haytham used the time to think and write, particularly about optics. Following his release, he combined this writing with experimental observations in his seminal seven-volume Book of Optics (Kitāb al-manāẓir).2 The book contains the correct model of vision, a complete formulation of the laws of reflection, and a detailed investigation of refraction. In addition, he published other studies on optics, including Ḍawʾ al-qamar (“On the Light of the Moon”), al-Hāla wa-qaws quzaḥ (“On the Halo and the Rainbow”), Ṣūrat al-kusūf (“On the Shape of the Eclipse”; which includes a discussion of the camera obscura), and al-Ḍawʾ (“A Discourse on Light”). Interestingly, it is speculated that the 17th century Dutch master, Vermeer, may have used a camera obscura – the precursor to the camera and photography – in achieving exquisite detail in his paintings. Other polymaths and artists such as Leonardo Da Vinci and Piero della Francesca have applied his discoveries to create the illusion of three-dimensional depth on canvas and in friezes.2 Together with his accomplishments in mathematics and astronomy,  Ibn al-Haytham has influenced seventeenth-century European scientists such as Johannes Kepler and enhanced our present understanding of classical optics.


1 Abbott, A. Nature 518, 281-2, 2015

2 Al-Khalili, J. Nature 518, 164-5, 2015