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Pierre-Simon Laplace

Pierre-Simon Laplace
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Pierre-Simon Laplace

Born: 23 March 1749 in Beaumont-en-Auge, Normandy, France

Died: 5 March 1827 in Paris, France

Pierre-Simon Laplace's father, Pierre Laplace, was comfortably well off in the cider trade. Laplace's mother, Marie-Anne Sochon, came from a fairly prosperous farming family who owned land at Tourgéville. Many accounts of Laplace say his family were 'poor farming people' or 'peasant farmers' but these seem to be rather inaccurate although there is little evidence of academic achievement except for an uncle who is thought to have been a secondary school teacher of mathematics. This is stated in in these terms:-

There is little record of intellectual distinction in the family beyond what was to be expected of the cultivated provincial bourgeoisie and the minor gentry.

Laplace attended a Benedictine priory school in Beaumont-en-Auge, as a day pupil, between the ages of 7 and 16. His father expected him to make a career in the Church and indeed either the Church or the army were the usual destinations of pupils at the priory school. At the age of 16 Laplace entered Caen University. As he was still intending to enter the Church, he enrolled to study theology. However, during his two years at the University of Caen, Laplace discovered his mathematical talents and his love of the subject. Credit for this must go largely to two teachers of mathematics at Caen, C Gadbled and P Le Canu of whom little is known except that they realised Laplace's great mathematical potential.

Once he knew that mathematics was to be his subject, Laplace left Caen without taking his degree, and went to Paris. He took with him a letter of introduction to d'Alembert from Le Canu, his teacher at Caen. Although Laplace was only 19 years old when he arrived in Paris he quickly impressed d'Alembert. Not only did d'Alembert begin to direct Laplace's mathematical studies, he also tried to find him a position to earn enough money to support himself in Paris. Finding a position for such a talented young man did not prove hard, and Laplace was soon appointed as professor of mathematics at the École Militaire. Gillespie writes in:-

Imparting geometry, trigonometry, elementary analysis, and statics to adolescent cadets of good family, average attainment, and no commitment to the subjects afforded little stimulus, but the post did permit Laplace to stay in Paris.

He began producing a steady stream of remarkable mathematical papers, the first presented to the Académie des Sciences in Paris on 28 March 1770. This first paper, read to the Society but not published, was on maxima and minima of curves where he improved on methods given by Lagrange. His next paper for the Academy followed soon afterwards, and on 18 July 1770 he read a paper on difference equations.

Laplace's first paper which was to appear in print was one on the integral calculus which he translated into Latin and published at Leipzig in the Nova acta eruditorum in 1771. Six years later Laplace republished an improved version, apologising for the 1771 paper and blaming errors contained in it on the printer. Laplace also translated the paper on maxima and minima into Latin and published it in the Nova acta eruditorum in 1774. Also in 1771 Laplace sent another paper Recherches sur le calcul intégral aux différences infiniment petites, et aux différences finies to the Mélanges de Turin. This paper contained equations which Laplace stated were important in mechanics and physical astronomy.

The year 1771 marks Laplace's first attempt to gain election to the Académie des Sciences but Vandermonde was preferred. Laplace tried to gain admission again in 1772 but this time Cousin was elected. Despite being only 23 (and Cousin 33) Laplace felt very angry at being passed over in favour of a mathematician who was so clearly markedly inferior to him. D'Alembert also must have been disappointed for, on 1 January 1773, he wrote to Lagrange, the Director of Mathematics at the Berlin Academy of Science, asking him whether it might be possible to have Laplace elected to the Berlin Academy and for a position to be found for Laplace in Berlin.

Before Lagrange could act on d'Alembert's request, another chance for Laplace to gain admission to the Paris Academy arose. On 31 March 1773 he was elected an adjoint in the Académie des Sciences. By the time of his election he had read 13 papers to the Academy in less than three years. Condorcet, who was permanent secretary to the Academy, remarked on this great number of quality papers on a wide range of topics.

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