France's scientific sledgehammer

Pierre-Simon Laplace, 1749-1827
September 25, 1998

During the Napoleonic regime, the Marquis Pierre-Simon de Laplace - an arrogant and bad-tempered man - exerted despotic rule over a select group of Parisian mathematical physicists who in effect controlled scientific research and teaching throughout France. Often dubbed "the French Newton", Laplace extended his English idol's celestial laws of gravitation to embrace terrestrial activity right down to the molecular level.

Laplace's astronomical view of nature, in which all phenomena - including heat, light and electricity - were explained by attractive and repulsive forces acting between particles, dominated French physics until the middle of the 19th century. By the age of 26, he had already formulated his renowned deterministic model of the universe that many people mistakenly attribute to Newton: "If we conceive of an intelligence that at a given instant comprehends all the relations of the entities of this universe, it could state the respective positions, motions, and general affects of all these entities at any time in the past or future." Even Napoleon commented on the absence of God in the Laplacian universe.

This formidable expert on theoretical physics and probability was, like many of his scientific compatriots, also deeply involved in practical affairs of state. As he gained increasingly prestigious administrative positions, his imperious behaviour constantly aroused his colleagues' hackles. Only on his deathbed did he display the modesty that eulogists have preferred to celebrate, allegedly moralising that "what we know is little, what we are ignorant of is immense".

In her study of Georges Cuvier - 20 years younger than Laplace but his contemporary counterpart who presided over French anatomy at the Museum of Natural History - Dorinda Outram brilliantly demonstrated the value of an individual biographical approach for exposing the ruthless acquisition of interdependent scientific and political power. Laplace, similarly embroiled in a patronage system of self-advancement that indelibly affected the course of science, provides an ideal candidate for exploring the institutionalisation of authority and knowledge. But disappointingly, Charles Gillespie's subtitle, A Life in Exact Science, turns out to be misleading. Although the first half of the book is organised chronologically, Laplace's life is virtually absent, merely a few pages of facts squeezed in between detailed exposes of his scientific work.

Poor devoted Madame de Laplace is not even mentioned in the index, although we do learn in passing that she nurtured her husband and his scientific friends "like a mother who could have been a sister". Nevertheless, it was probably she who commissioned the book's only portrait, painted 15 years after Laplace's death for a posthumous collection of his works.

This covert lapse in time embodied in the frontispiece reflects that of the book itself, which is a barely updated reproduction of the entry Gillespie produced with several collaborators for the 1978 Supplement of the Dictionary of Scientific Biography. Here, while acknowledging the contributions of Robert Fox and Ivor Grattan-Guinness, Gillespie himself seems to have provided little new other than minor editorial changes and an eight-page conclusion defending his hero against retrospective criticisms. Yet though lacking in novelty, this repackaged treatment remains the authoritative analysis of Laplace's mathematical and scientific work, comprehensively and clearly explained, and critically assessed from time to time.

According to Gillespie, there is only one thing to be said of French physics for the first 30 years of the 19th century: "For good or for ill, all of it was mathematical." He quotes an anonymous reviewer - almost certainly Augustus de Morgan - who judged that "The genius of Laplace was a perfect sledgehammer in bursting purely mathematical obstacles; but, like that useful instrument, it gave neither finish nor beauty to the results."

It is tempting to apply this assessment to Gillespie's study. Bristling with formulae, this book will not appeal to the mathematically faint-hearted. Indeed, it is hard to know for whom it was intended. While it may meet Gillespie's stated objective of giving "an account of the sequence, range, and results of Laplace's scientific work, explained in terms of his own time and in his own notation", any reader with the expertise and interest to appreciate such a presentation would have ready access to the 1978 version.

Until recently, potential Laplacian biographers were deterred by believing that most of his correspondence had been either burnt in a French chteau or destroyed in a 1944 bombing raid. Fortunately, Roger Hahn discovered many surviving manuscripts, now at Berkeley, and in 1994 published an enlarged edition of his comprehensive and fully indexed annotated list.

Although Gillespie does not appear to have taken advantage of this valuable source, hopefully his reprinted intellectual account of a man he perceives as "among the most influential scientists in all history" will, one may hope, prompt a biography exploring in greater depth the sources and extent of this powerful Laplacian influence.

Patricia Fara is affiliated lecturer in the history and philosophy of science, University of Cambridge.

Pierre-Simon Laplace, 1749-18: A Life in Exact Science

Author - Charles Coulston Gillespie
ISBN - 0 691 01185 0
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 304

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