I have decided to rerun three of my favorite columns this month and update them.  Here is one from three years ago.

I have often wondered why there are so many people smarter than I am and what makes them so. This bizarre curiosity led to my admiration and envy of many individuals.  However, to narrow down the list to something more reasonable,  I elected to choose two people whom I deem the most intelligent and limit the time frame to the past 400 years.  

My criteria are their diversity of knowledge, versatility, perceptions of others, achievements, publications and legacies.  The roster could include a number of stalwarts including Isaac  Newton, Albert Einstein, Johann Goethe and many more. I chose two who are not as well known and in my opinion Leonhard Euler (pronounced Oiler)  and Thomas Young to top the list.  This may seem odd, and many people have not heard of either one.  Let me explain.  

Both gentlemen were experts in multiple fields, and their works and concepts are an integral part of modern engineering, astronomy, medicine, physics and other fields as well.  Euler derived modern mathematical principles and contributed to the fields of geometry, trigonometry and calculus.  In calculus alone, he provided hundreds of discoveries and proofs along with many computations to simplify and clarify differential calculus, infinite series and integral techniques.  He was a revolutionary thinker in such diverse fields as astronomy, acoustics, hydrodynamics, mechanics, music,  ballistics, navigation and topology.  

As one would expect, Euler had a remarkable memory, at an early age he could recite all 9800 lines of Virgil's poem,  the “Aeneid.”   His productivity was equally amazing, during his career he wrote more than 850 publications, including 18 books.  Euler lost sight in one eye in his early 30s, and was nearly blind by age 60.  Despite that, he continued his illustrious career and published more than 400 more articles and a major three volume work on lunar motion.  

Pierre Simon LaPlace, a noted 18th-century mathematician, reportedly said, "Read Euler, read Euler, he is the master of us all."

Thomas Young was another polymath, a linguist, physician and physicist who established the theory of light, color perception, anatomy, the significance of energy, elasticity and because of his uncanny knowledge of language, the study of Egyptology and hieroglyphics.  

The latter was instrumental in his ability to help translate the previously undecipherable and mysterious Rosetta stone. He was the first person to make real progress with the stone. His most important conclusion was that some hieroglyphs appeared to give phonetic cues, signs of a word’s sound. That is, a hieroglyph might not represent the riddle of the sphinx or the meaning of the universe, but maybe just the sound “d.” Young cushioned this finding in caution, saying that it was true only of names, and names only of non-Egyptian rulers.

I first became interested in Young because of my background in pharmacy and mechanical testing, finding it hard to believe that Young's Rule – a method to determine a child's dosage for drugs, and Young's Modulus – a measure of stiffness of an elastic material used by all material scientists are both derived by the same person.  They were.

Young also worked on liquid molecule size and surface tension measurement.  While he was still a medical student he discovered how the lens of the eye changes shape to focus on objects at different distances which led to the discovery of the cause of astigmatism. When asked in later years to contribute to a new edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica, Young offered to write on:  the alphabet, annuities, capillary action, cohesion, color, dew, Egypt, focus, friction, haloes, hieroglyphics, hydraulics, motion, resistance, ships, sound, strength, tides, waves and anything about medicine.  He requested, however, that this contributions be kept anonymous.  His wish tells you something about his character.

Many will not agree with my choices and justifiably so.  An author of a recent book I read chose two others, one old and one fairly recent.  In his mind Leonardo Da Vinci and physicist Richard Feynman were the smartest, based on their curiosity and achievements.  

Leonardo's boundless interests spanned such broad swaths of art, science and technology and he remains to this day the quintessential Renaissance man. Leonardo, however, was born in 1452 and doesn't meet my 400 year requirement. Feynman's genius and achievements in numerous branches of physics are legendary, but he also pursued fascinations with biology, painting, safe cracking and studying Mayan hieroglyphs. He  also wrote a number of bestselling books.  

Final Thoughts

In summary, I realize how presumptuous I am choosing two individuals as the most brilliant considering the billions of people who have inhabited or now inhabit the earth.  There is no analytical measurement, and there were no intelligence tests available in the 18th century..  However even if there were IQ tests, they would not be the only measure of genius.  There seems to be no common denominator except uncommonness.  My selections are based on and determined by the knowledge Euler and Young accumulated during their lifetimes and, by good fortune, their concerted efforts to share it with the world. Who would you pick?

Max Sherman is a medical writer and pharmacist retired from the medical device industry.  His new book “Science Snippets” is available from Amazon and other book sellers. It contains a number of previously published columns.  He can be reached by email at  maxsherman339@gmail.com.