Pierre-Simon Laplace was a French mathematician and astronomer who carried out remarkable studies regarding the stability of the solar system and is famously known as the ‘French Newton’. He also did pioneering work in mathematics regarding the theory of probability and statistics which influenced a whole new generation of mathematicians. Born in a poor family, his education was financed by neighbors and he was sent to study theology at the age of 16. But, he soon developed a keen interest in mathematics and was subsequently drawn to physics and astronomy. He served as a professor of mathematics for seven years and also published several scientific papers alongside. Laplace successfully accounted for all the observed deviations of the planets from their theoretical orbits by applying Sir Isaac Newton’s theory of gravitation to the solar system, and he developed a conceptual view of evolutionary change in the structure of the solar system. He also demonstrated the usefulness of probability for interpreting scientific data and applied his own definition of probability to justify the fundamental mathematical manipulations. He restated and developed the nebular hypothesis of the origin of the solar system and also postulated the existence of black holes along with the notion of gravitational collapse
Childhood & Early Life
Pierre-Simon Laplace was born on March 23, 1749, in Beaumont-en-Auge, a village in Normandy, France, to Pierre de Laplace, owner of small farms of Maarquis, and his wife, Marie-Anne Sochon.
Despite his family’s poor financial condition, Laplace was able to receive a good education courtesy his wealthy neighbors. His father wanted him to be ordained in the Roman Catholic Church and thus sent him to Caen University to study theology at the age of 16. But, Laplace developed a keen interest in mathematics.
At the age of 19, he dropped out of college and moved to Paris where he worked as a professor of mathematics at the École Militaire from 1769 to 1776. During this time, he published several papers regarding integral calculus, mechanics and physical astronomy, which gained him much acclaim all over France.
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In 1771, his early published work focused on differential equations and finite differences. Subsequently, he started to think about the mathematical and philosophical concepts of probability and statistics.
In 1774, his paper titled ‘Mémoire sur la probabilité des causes par les événements’ was published. Two years later, he published another paper which further elaborated his statistical thinking and also began his systematic work on celestial mechanics and the stability of the solar system.
During 1784–87, he worked on the subject of attraction between spheroids which laid the mathematical foundation for the scientific study of heat, magnetism, and electricity.
In 1796, he published ‘Exposition du système du monde (The System of the World)’, which included his ‘nebular hypothesis’.
Between 1799 and 1825, he published five volumes of ‘Traité de mécanique céleste (Celestial Mechanics)’, which summarized the results obtained by his mathematical development and application of the law of gravitation.
In 1812, he published his comprehensive research in mathematics titled ‘Théorie analytique des probabilités (Analytic Theory of Probability)’. Another major work on the theory of probability, titled ‘Essai philosophique sur les probabilités (A Philosophical Essay on Probability)’ was published in 1814.
He theorized the existence of black holes, suggesting that there could be massive stars whose gravity is so great that not even light could escape from its surface. He also stated the fact that the speed of sound in air depends on the heat capacity ratio.
His other discoveries in pure and applied mathematics include Laplace's method for approximating integrals, solution of the linear partial differential equation of the second order, and general proof of the Lagrange reversion theorem.
Pierre-Simon Laplace is highly regarded for his influential five-volume treatise ‘Traité de mécanique céleste’ (Celestial mechanics; 1799-1825), which developed a strong mathematical understanding of the motion of the heavenly bodies. He established that the small perturbations observed in the orbital motion of the planets will always remain small, constant and self-correcting.
He formulated Laplace's equation, and pioneered the Laplace transform which appears in many branches of mathematical physics. The Laplacian differential operator, widely used in mathematics, is also named after him.
Awards & Achievements
In 1806, Laplace was elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
In 1822, he was appointed a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Personal Life & Legacy
In March 1788, he married Marie-Charlotte de Courty de Romanges, a girl from Besançon who was twenty years younger to him. The couple had a son, Charles-Émile, and a daughter, Sophie-Suzanne.
Pierre-Simon Laplace died on March 5, 1827, in Paris, France, at the age of 77. After he died, his physician, François Magendie, removed Laplace’s brain which was later displayed in a roving anatomical museum in Britain.