Pierre-Simon Laplace

Laplace had always changed his views with the changing political events of the time, modifying his opinions to fit in

Pierre-Simon Laplace



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t Berthollet, he set up the Society which operated out of their homes in Arcueil which was south of Paris. Among the mathematicians who were members of this active group of scientists were Biot and Poisson. The group strongly advocated a mathematical approach to science with Laplace playing the leading role. This marks the height of Laplace's influence, dominant also in the Institute and having a powerful influence on the Йcole Polytechnique and the courses that the students studied there.

After the publication of the fourth volume of the Mйcanique Cйleste, Laplace continued to apply his ideas of physics to other problems such as capillary action (1806-07), double refraction (1809), the velocity of sound (1816), the theory of heat, in particular the shape and rotation of the cooling Earth (1817-1820), and elastic fluids (1821). However during this period his dominant position in French science came to an end and others with different physical theories began to grow in importance.

The Sociйtй d'Arcueil, after a few years of high activity, began to become less active with the meetings becoming less regular around 1812. The meetings ended completely the following year. Arago, who had been a staunch member of the Society, began to favour the wave theory of light as proposed by Fresnel around 1815 which was directly opposed to the corpuscular theory which Laplace supported and developed. Many of Laplace's other physical theories were attacked, for instance his caloric theory of heat was at odds with the work of Petit and of Fourier. However, Laplace did not concede that his physical theories were wrong and kept his belief in fluids of heat and light, writing papers on these topics when over 70 years of age.

At the time that his influence was decreasing, personal tragedy struck Laplace. His only daughter, Sophie-Suzanne, had married the Marquis de Portes and she died in childbirth in 1813. The child, however, survived and it is through her that there are descendants of Laplace. Laplace's son, Charles-Emile, lived to the age of 85 but had no children.

Laplace had always changed his views with the changing political events of the time, modifying his opinions to fit in with the frequent political changes which were typical of this period. This way of behaving added to his success in the 1790s and 1800s but certainly did nothing for his personal relations with his colleagues who saw his changes of views as merely attempts to win favour. In 1814 Laplace supported the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy and caste his vote in the Senate against Napoleon. The Hundred Days were an embarrassment to him the following year and he conveniently left Paris for the critical period. After this he remained a supporter of the Bourbon monarchy and became unpopular in political circles. When he refused to sign the document of the French Academy supporting freedom of the press in 1826, he lost the remaining friends he had in politics.

On the morning of Monday 5 March 1827 Laplace died. Few events would cause the Academy to cancel a meeting but they did on that day as a mark of respect for one of the greatest scientists of all time. Surprisingly there was no quick decision to fill the place left vacant on his death and the decision of the Academy in October 1827 not to fill the vacant place for another 6 months did not result in an appointment at that stage, some further months elapsing before Puissant was elected as Laplace's successor.

J J O'Connor and E F Robertson

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