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Laplace, Pierre Simon de (1749–1827)





Pierre Simon de Laplace
French physicist and mathematician who put the final capstone on mathematical astronomy by summarizing and extending the work of his predecessors in his five-volume Traité de Mécanique Céleste (Treaty on Celestial Mechanics), published from 1799 to 1825. This work was important because it translated the geometrical study of mechanics used by Isaac Newton to one based on calculus. In Mécanique Céleste, Laplace proved the dynamical stability of the Solar System (with tidal friction ignored) on short timescales. Over long periods, however, this assertion has proven false because of the effects of chaos. Laplace explained the long-term variations in the orbital speeds of Jupiter and Saturn (1786), and the Moon (1787). His nebular hypothesis of the origin of the Solar System (1796) is similar to that of Immanuel Kant, of which he was apparently unaware.

The Solar System, Laplace said, originated out of a gradually cooling cloud of gas, with the planets most remote from the center condensing first. This theory had a strong influence on subsequent speculation about the nature of our neighboring worlds. It implied that the inner worlds were younger and that, in particular, cloud-covered Venus might be an immature version of the Earth – a virgin world. By contrast, planets further from the Sun, such as Mars, would have formed later and therefore could be expected to be more highly evolved. Laplace's theory also suggested that planets are a natural consequence of the evolution of stars, so that many stars ought to have planetary retinues. It therefore provided powerful support for the doctrine of pluralism. After reading Mécanique Céleste, Napoleon Bonaparte is said to have questioned Laplace on his neglect to mention God. In contrast to Newton's view on the subject, Laplace replied: "Sir, I have no need of that hypothesis."


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