Think like a neutron

Steven Shapin

  • The Last Man Who Knew Everything: The Life and Times of Enrico Fermi, Father of the Nuclear Age by David N. Schwartz
    Basic, 448 pp, £26.99, December 2017, ISBN 978 0 465 07292 7

Enrico Fermi is just the latest in a long line of ‘last men who knew everything’. A handful of recent biographies claim the title for their subjects, which include the Renaissance naturalist Athanasius Kircher (two books); the German polymath Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz; the early 19th-century English physicist Thomas Young; and the 19th-century American palaeontologist Joseph Leidy. Then there are ‘men who knew too much’ (Robert Hooke, Alan Turing, G.K. Chesterton and, predictably, Alfred Hitchcock) and those whose knowledge ‘changed everything’ (Shakespeare, Isaac Newton, James Clerk Maxwell). Everything-knowers are admired, though with qualifications: the ‘know-it-all’ is an intellectual bully or a bore, and one thing it’s useful to know is when not to tell everyone that you know everything. It’s no great surprise that there doesn’t seem ever to have been a ‘woman who knew everything’ – while there are several books about women who ‘knew too much’. It’s often said that some quite ordinary people ‘know everything’, but that usually comes with qualifications too: you can ‘know everything’ if you win pub quizzes, or you can ‘know everything’ about birdwatching, or baking cakes, or The Archers. But the serious-minded books about those who ‘know everything’ tend to be about intellectuals, or certain kinds of intellectuals.

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