Pierre-Simon Laplace: Born in Normandy to a bourgeoisie family, the celebrated mathemetician Laplace (1749-1827) originally studied to join the clergy. However, it was not until his days at the University of Caen that Laplace (and his professors) discovered his talent for mathematics. As a nineteen-year-old boy, Laplace set out for Paris with a new career goal in mind, and his new mentors believed that their star student had the potential to gain admittance into the prestigious Academy of Science (which became a reality in 1773). Laplace's exhibits his encyclopedic knowledge of the physical sciences in his papers in astronomy, statistics, physics, and probability. Furthermore, the numerous equations that litter his biographies attest to the countless calculations that enabled his exploration of gravity and the stability of solar systems, his discovery of key statistical concepts, and his prediction of the existence of black holes.
Carlyle acknowledges Laplace's contributions to the sciences; however, the author is quick to denigrate the specific intellectualism of individuals like Laplace and his mathematical contemporary, Lagrange. In their biography of Laplace, Robert Fox and Ivor Grattan-Guinness characterize the famous mathematician as an "indefatigable calculator manipulating expressions that occupy many lines in arguments that run for very many pages" (272). Such technical virtuosity may provoke awe in the biographers, but Carlyle sees tediousness and emptiness that crunching so many numbers can create. According to Carlyle, more fascinating intellectual gymnasts remain those who work to incorporate new philosophies into subject areas, rather than simply responding to the mechanisms of plugging and chugging numbers.
Fox, Robert and Ivor Grattan-Guinness. Pierre-Simon Laplace 1749-1827: A Life in Exact Science. Princeton: Princeton U P, 1997.
"Pierre-Simon Laplace." Wikipedia. 2009. March 27, 2009.
Last modified 1 April 2009