Pierre-Simon Laplace was born in Beaumont-en-Auge, in Normandy, France, on March 28, 1749. He was born to a wealthy family, but first studied at Benedictine College in his hometown. Later he transferred to the University of Caen in 1766. He left Caen in 1768 without a degree and moved to Paris to work with the famous mathematician Jean d’Alembert (1717-1773). Laplace was immediately employed at the Ecole Militaire and was elected to the position of head mathematician at the Académie des Sciences after being hired in 1773.
Laplace made many achievements in applied mathematics and astronomy, and their effects are still being felt today. Starting in 1773, he applied his mathematical talents to celestial mechanics problems. He made groundbreaking work in the orbital interactions between Saturn and Jupiter, lunar orbital motion, the shape of planetary bodies, tides, and the stability of the solar system. His work with fellow Frenchman Joseph Louis Lagrange (1736-1813) established new standards of rigor and accuracy in positional astronomy. He created tables of planetary positions that were widely in use through the 19th century. Laplace’s research into celestial mechanics concluded in his publication, between 1799 and 1825, of the five-volume Traité de Mécanique Céleste.
In 1796 Laplace published a popular work describing the current state of cosmological thought, entitled Exposition du système du Monde. In this book Laplace introduced his nebular hypothesis, which stated that the solar system formed from the gravity-initiated contraction of an initially large, diffuse, and slowly rotating cloud of interstellar gas.
Not only was Laplace adept at astronomy and mathematics, he was also cunning at politics. He managed to stay in the good graces of rulers through the French Revolution, the Napoleonic era, and the return of the French monarchy. In addition to his scientific honors, Laplace was appointed to the French Senate by Napoleon in 1799. Following Napoleon’s fall, Laplace was given the rank of Marquis by the returning French monarchy, which is why he is also known as Marquis de Laplace. Laplace’s loyalty to the French monarchy made him very unpopular in the last decade of his life. Although he lost some political admiration, he was still popular within the academic community. When he died on March 5, 1824, the Académie des Sciences cancelled their meeting, a very rare occurrence, in a show of respect for the great scientist.
High Altitude Observatory: National Center for
The source of this material is the University Corporation
for Atmospheric Research (UCAR).
"At the bottom the theory of probabilities is only common sense expressed in numbers."
- Essai philosophique des probabilites, 1814
"If man were restricted to collecting facts the sciences were only a sterile nomenclature and he would never have known the great laws of nature. It is in comparing the phenomena with each other, in seeking to grasp their relationships, that he is led to discover these laws..."
- Exposition du systeme du monde, 1796
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