Shaping the world

The Man who Flattened the Earth
December 12, 2003

Recreating the scientific world in the first half of 18th-century Europe, Mary Terrall underlines the extent to which this was a public world, not secluded in institutions. Pierre-Louis de Maupertuis' ability to engage with public interest in science reflected his keen sense of this interest.

In the 1746 edition of his Vénus Physique , in which he discusses the origin of life, Maupertuis engaged with topical questions such as "Why are the inhabitants of the tropical zone black?" and "Why are the glacial zones only inhabited by deformed peoples?" His approach mixed the determinism of geographical differences with a melange of examples from various sources. Also in 1746, Maupertuis presented a paper to the Berlin Academy of Sciences (of which he was president) titled "The laws of motion and rest deduced from the attributes of God", in which he applied the metaphysical concept of least action - that nature acts as simply as possible - in a mathematical version.

Maupertuis is best known for his geodetical measurements in Lapland, designed to test the Newtonian theory of gravitation and to establish the shape of the earth. He told the story of this expedition many times, both as part of a controversy over the results and as an attempt to provide an account of the heroism of scientific practice. He led Voltaire to comment in 1738: "In ecstasy and in fear, I follow you across your cataracts and up your mountains of ice."

In Berlin, Maupertuis faced the challenge of how best to secure his own position while maintaining the support of Frederick the Great. In a 1750 lecture on "the duties of the academician", he claimed the academy was a society within society, benefiting internally from mutual aid but linked to the outside world through its dependence on the king.

As a guide to the public world of post-Newtonian European science, this well-written, scholarly work has much to offer. Terrall is particularly good on how Maupertuis' writings straddled the uneasy, but fruitful, divide between scientific detail and popular support.

Jeremy Black is professor of history, University of Exeter.

The Man who Flattened the Earth: Maupertuis and the Sciences in the Enlightenment

Author - Mary Terrall
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Pages - 408
Price - £.50
ISBN - 0 226 79360 5

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