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Napoleon: M. Laplace, they tell me you have written this large book on the system of the universe, and have never even mentioned its Creator.

Laplace: Your Highness, I have no need of that hypothesis.

b.1749 d.1827
Pierre Simon Laplace replaced theological, or supernatural, science with secular science. He expanded the work in astronomy and celestial mechanics of Newton and Lagrange. He may be best remembered for his Nebular Hypothesis, but he also developed an analytical theory of tides, deduced the mass of the moon, improved the calculation of cosmic orbits, and predicted that Saturn's rings would be found to rotate.

Born of a French farming family with no history of academic achievement, Laplace attended a Benedictine school between the ages of 7 and 16. His father expected him to make a career in the Church -- either the Church or the army were the usual destinations of pupils at the school. At the age of 16 Laplace entered Caen University -- to study theology. However, during his two years at the University of Caen, Laplace discovered his mathematical talents. While his research would touch on many subjects, he is best remembered for his achievements in probability and celestial mechanics.

... I have sought to establish that the phenomena of nature can be reduced in the last analysis to actions at a distance between molecule and molecule, and that the consideration of these actions must serve as the basis of the mathematical theory of these phenomena.
In 1780, applying quantitative methods to a comparison of living and nonliving systems, Laplace and the chemist Antoine Lavoisier, with the aid of an ice calorimeter that they had invented, showed respiration to be a form of combustion. In 1784 Laplace was appointed as examiner at the Royal Artillery Corps, and in this role in 1785, he examined and passed the 16 year old Napoleon Bonaparte. Twenty years later, under Napoleon, Laplace became a member, then chancellor, of the Senate and would receive the Legion of Honour.

In politics Laplace moved whichever way he thought the wind was blowing. Despite ingratiating himself with Napoleon, in 1814 Laplace supported the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy and cast his vote in the Senate against Napoleon. His arrogance kept him from creating many friends in scientific circles and - in 1826 - when he refused to sign the document of the French Academy supporting freedom of the press, he lost the remaining friends he had in politics.

Important Books


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