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Pierre-Simon, Marquis de Laplace
March 23, 1749
Beaumont-en-Auge, Normandy
March 5, 1827
Paris, France

Pierre-Simon, Marquis de Laplace (March 23 1749, Beaumont-en-Auge, Normandy – March 5 1827, Paris) was a French mathematician and astronomer who put the final capstone on mathematical astronomy by summarizing and extending the work of his predecessors in his five volume Mécanique Céleste ([Celestial Mechanics) (1799-1825). This masterpiece translated the geometrical study of classical mechanics used by Isaac Newton to one based on calculus, known as physical mechanics [1].

He is also the discoverer of Laplace's equation. Although the Laplace transform is named in honor of Laplace, who used the transform in his work on probability theory, the transform was discovered originally by Leonhard Euler, the prolific eighteenth-century Swiss mathematician. The Laplace transform appears in all branches of mathematical physics — a field he took a leading role in forming. The Laplacian differential operator, much relied-upon in applied mathematics, is likewise named after him.

Biography[edit | edit source]

Pierre Simon Laplace was the son of a small cottager or perhaps a farm-labourer, and owed his education to the interest excited in some wealthy neighbours by his abilities and engaging presence. It would seem from a pupil he became an usher in the school at Beaumont; but, having procured a letter of introduction to d'Alembert, he went to Paris to push his fortune. A paper on the principles of mechanics excited D'Alembert's interest, and on his recommendation a place in the military school was offered to Laplace.

Secure of a competency, Laplace now threw himself into original research, and in the next seventeen years, 1771-1787, he produced much of his original work in astronomy. This commenced with a memoir, read before the French Academy in 1773, in which he showed that the planetary motions were stable, and carried the proof as far as the cubes of the eccentricities and inclinations. This was followed by several papers on points in the integral calculus, finite differences, differential equations, and astronomy.

Laplace had a wide knowledge of all sciences and dominated all discussions in the Académie. Quite uniquely for a mathematical prodigy of his skill, Laplace viewed mathematics as nothing in itself but a tool to be called upon in the investigation of a scientific or practical inquiry.

Laplace spent much of his life working on mathematical astronomy that culminated in his masterpiece on the proof of the dynamic stability of the solar system with the assumption that it consists of a collection of rigid bodies moving in a vacuum. He independently formulated the nebular hypothesis and was one of the first scientists to postulate the existence of black holes and the notion of gravitational collapse.

He is remembered as one of the greatest scientists of all time (sometimes referred to as a French Isaac Newton|Newton) with a natural phenomenal mathematical faculty possessed by none of his contemporaries. It does appear that Laplace was not modest about his abilities and achievements, and he probably failed to recognise the effect of his attitude on his colleagues. Lexell visited the Académie des Sciences in Paris in 1780-81 and reported that Laplace let it be known widely that he considered himself the best mathematician in France. The effect on his colleagues would have been only mildly eased by the fact that Laplace was very likely right. [2]

Probability theory[edit | edit source]

While he conducted much research in physics, another major theme of his life's endeavors was probability theory. In his Essai philosophique sur les probabilités, Laplace set out a mathematical system of inductive reasoning based on probability, which we would today recognise as Bayesian. One well-known formula arising from his system is the rule of succession. Suppose that some trial has only two possible outcomes, labeled "success" and "failure". Under the assumption that little or nothing is known a priori about the relative plausibilities of the outcomes, Laplace derived a formula for the probability that the next trial will be a success.


where s is the number of previously observed successes and n is the total number of observed trials. It is still used as an estimator for the probability of an event if we know the event space, but only have a small number of samples.

The rule of succession has been subject to much criticism, partly due to the example which Laplace chose to illustrate it. He calculated that the probability that the sun will rise tomorrow, given that it has never failed to in the past, was

where d is the number of times the sun has risen in the past. This result has been derided as absurd, and some authors have concluded that all applications of the Rule of Succession are absurd by extension. However, Laplace was fully aware of the absurdity of the result; immediately following the example, he wrote, "But this number [i.e., the probability that the sun will rise tomorrow] is far greater for him who, seeing in the totality of phenomena the principle regulating the days and seasons, realizes that nothing at the present moment can arrest the course of it."

Laplace's determinism[edit | edit source]

Further information: Determinism

Laplace strongly believed in causal determinism, which is expressed in the following quote from the introduction to the Essai:

"We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes."

This intellect is often referred to as Laplace's demon Note that the description of the hypothetical intellect described above by Laplace as a demon does not come from Laplace, but from later biographers: Laplace saw himself as a scientist that hoped that humanity would progress in a better scientific understanding of the world, which, if and when eventually completed, would still need a tremendous calculating power to compute it all in a single instant. While Laplace saw foremost practical problems for mankind to reach this ultimate stage of knowledge and computation, later interpretations of quantum mechanics, which were adopted by philosophers defending the existence of free will, also leave the theoretical possibility of such an "intellect" contested.

There has recently been proposed a limit on the computational power of the universe, ie the ability of Laplace's Demon to process an infinite amount of information. The limit is based on the maximum entropy of the universe, the speed of light, and the minimum amount of time taken to move information across the Planck length, and the figure turns out to be 2130 bits. Accordingly, anything that requires more than this amount of data cannot be computed in the amount of time that has lapsed so far in the universe. (An actual theory of everything might find an exception to this limit, of course.)

Science as prediction[edit | edit source]

Laplace went in state to beg Napoleon to accept a copy of his work, and the following account of the interview is well authenticated, and so characteristic of all the parties concerned that I quote it in full. Someone had told Napoleon that the book contained no mention of the name of God; Napoleon, who was fond of putting embarrassing questions, received it with the remark, "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, who, though the most supple of politicians, was as stiff as a martyr on every point of his philosophy, drew himself up and answered bluntly, "Je n'avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là." (I did not need to make such an assumption). Napoleon, greatly amused, told this reply to Lagrange, who exclaimed, "Ah! c'est une belle hypothèse; ça explique beaucoup de choses" (Ah! that is a beautiful assumption; it explains many things). Laplace then declared: "Cette hypothèse, Sire, explique en effet tout, mais ne permet de prédire rien. En tant que savant, je me dois de vous fournir des travaux permettant des prédictions" (quoted by Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen — This hypothesis, Sir, does explains everything, but does not permit to predict anything. As a scholar, I must provide you with works permitting predictions."). Laplace thus defined science as a predicting tool.

Analytic theory of probabilities[edit | edit source]

In 1812 Laplace issued his Théorie analytique des probabilités. The theory is stated to be only common sense expressed in mathematical language. The method of estimating the ratio of the number of favourable cases to the whole number of possible cases had been indicated by Laplace in a paper written in 1779. It consists in treating the successive values of any function as the coefficients in the expansion of another function with reference to a different variable. The latter is therefore called the generating function of the former. Laplace then shows how, by means of interpolation, these coefficients may be determined from the generating function. Next he attacks the converse problem, and from the coefficients he finds the generating function; this is effected by the solution of an equation in finite differences. The method is cumbersome, and in consequence of the increased power of analysis is now rarely used.

This treatise includes an exposition of the method of least squares, a remarkable testimony to Laplace's command over the processes of analysis. The method of least squares for the combination of numerous observations had been given empirically by Gauss and Legendre, but the fourth chapter of this work contains a formal proof of it, on which the whole of the theory of errors has been since based. This was effected only by a most intricate analysis specially invented for the purpose, but the form in which it is presented is so meagre and unsatisfactory that in spite of the uniform accuracy of the results it was at one time questioned whether Laplace had actually gone through the difficult work he so briefly and often incorrectly indicates.

In 1819 Laplace published a popular account of his work on probability. This book bears the same relation to the Théorie des probabilités that the Système du monde does to the Méchanique céleste.

Minor discoveries[edit | edit source]

Amongst the minor discoveries of Laplace in pure mathematics is his discussion (simultaneously with Vandermonde) of the general theory of determinants in 1772; his proof that every equation of an even degree must have at least one real quadratic factor; his reduction of the solution of linear differential equations to definite integrals; and his solution of the linear partial differential equation of the second order. He was also the first to consider the difficult problems involved in equations of mixed differences, and to prove that the solution of an equation in finite differences of the first degree and the second order might be always obtained in the form of a continued fraction. Besides these original discoveries he determined, in his theory of probabilities, the values of a number of the more common definite integrals; and in the same book gave the general proof of the theorem enunciated by Lagrange for the development of any implicit function in a series by means of differential coefficients.

In theoretical physics the theory of capillary attraction is due to Laplace, who accepted the idea propounded by Hauksbee in the Philosophical Transactions for 1709, that the phenomenon was due to a force of attraction which was insensible at sensible distances. The part which deals with the action of a solid on a liquid and the mutual action of two liquids was not worked out thoroughly, but ultimately was completed by Gauss: Carl Neumann later filled in a few details. In 1862 Lord Kelvin (Sir William Thomson) showed that if the molecular constitution of matter is assumed, the laws of capillary attraction can be deduced from the Newtonian law of gravitation.

Laplace in 1816 was the first to point out explicitly why Newton's theory of vibratory motion gave an incorrect value for the velocity of sound. The actual velocity is greater than that calculated by Newton in consequence of the heat developed by the sudden compression of the air which increases the elasticity and therefore the velocity of the sound transmitted. Laplace's investigations in practical physics were confined to those carried on by him jointly with Lavoisier in the years 1782 to 1784 on the specific heat of various bodies.

Laplace seems to have regarded analysis merely as a means of attacking physical problems, though the ability with which he invented the necessary analysis is almost phenomenal. As long as his results were true he took but little trouble to explain the steps by which he arrived at them; he never studied elegance or symmetry in his processes, and it was sufficient for him if he could by any means solve the particular question he was discussing.

Quotes[edit | edit source]

  • What we know is not much. What we do not know is immense.
  • I have no need of that hypothesis. ("Je n'ai pas besoin de cette hypothèse", as a reply to Napoleon, who had asked why he hadn't mentioned God in his book on astronomy)
  • "It is therefore obvious that..." (frequently used in the Celestial Mechanics when he had proved something and mislaid the proof, or found it clumsy. Notorious as a signal for something true, but hard to prove.)
  • The weight of evidence for an extraordinary claim must be proportioned to its strangeness. (known as the principle of Laplace)

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Further reading[edit | edit source]

  • Gillispie, Charles Coulston (1997) Pierre Simon Laplace 1749-1827: A Life in Exact Science, Princeton: Princeton University Press, ISBN 0691011850
  • Hahn, Roger (2005) Pierre Simon Laplace 1749-1827: A Determined Scientist, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, ISBN 0674018923

External links[edit | edit source]

  1. REDIRECT Template:MacTutor
Preceded by:
Michel-Louis-Étienne Regnaud de Saint-Jean d'Angély
Seat 8
Académie française
Succeeded by:
Pierre-Paul Royer-Collard

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