Laplace, Pierre Simon De

Laplace, Pierre Simon de a noted French philosopher, one of the greatest astronomers and mathematicians of any age or country, born at Beaumont-enAuge (Calvados), in France, March 23, 1749, of humble parentage, and appointed professor of mathematics in the military school at Paris in 1768, and membre-adjoint of the Academy of Sciences in 1773, first made a reputation for himself by his Exposition du Systemne du Monde, which he published in 1796, and which was simply an outline for popular use of his greater treatise, La Mecanique celeste, of which the first two volumes were sent forth in 1798, the third in 1802, the fourth in 1805, and the fifth in 1825, and still later (1827) a posthumous supplement (for a full synopsis of the contents of this great work on mathematical astronomy, see Penny Cyclop. 13:326 sq.), a book which will doubtless preserve his memory to the latest posterity. He also wrote Theorie Analytique sur les Probabilites (1812) and Essai Philosophique sur les Probabilites (1814). He died May 5, 1827. His last words were, "Ce que nous connaissons est peu de chose; ce que nous ignorans, est immense." "The author of the Mecanique Celeste, to use a common synonyme for Laplace, must be an object of the admiration of posterity as long as any record of the 18th century exists. For many years he was the head, though not the hand of European astronomy; and most of the labors of observation were made in directions pointed out by him, or for the furtherance of his discoveries in the consequences of the law of gravitation. It is sometimes stated by English writers that Laplace was an atheist. We have attentively examined every passage which has been brought in proof of this assertion, and we can find nothing which makes either for or against such a supposition.... An attempt to explain how the solar system might possibly have arisen from the cooling of a mass of fluid or vapor is called atheistical because it attempts to ascend one step in the chain of causes; the Principia of Newton was designated by the same term, and for a similar reason. What Laplace's opinions were we do not know and it is not fair that a writer who, at a time of perfect license on such matters, has studiously avoided entering on the subject, should be stated as of one opinion or the other upon the authority of a few passages of which it can only be said (as it could equally be said of most mathematical works) that they might have been written by a person of any religious or political sentiments whatever" (Penny Cyclop. 13:325-328). See Thomas, Biographical Dictionary, page 1372; Hoefer, Nouv. Biog. Generale, 29:531 sq.

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