Often referred to as the Newton of France, Pierre Simon Laplace has been called the greatest scientist of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. He affirmed the stability of the solar system and offered a powerful hypothesis about its origins. A skillful mathematician and popular philosopher, Laplace also did pioneering work on probability theory, in devising a method of inverse probabilities associated with his classic formulation of physical determinism in the universe. With Lavoisier and several younger disciples, he also made decisive advances in chemistry and mathematical physics.
Roger Hahn, who has devoted years to researching Laplace's life, has compiled a rich archive of his scientific correspondence. In this compact biography, also based in part on unpublished private papers, Hahn follows Laplace's journey from would-be priest in the provinces to Parisian academician, popularizer of science during the French Revolution, religious skeptic, and supporter of Napoleon. By the end of his life, Laplace had become a well-rewarded dean of French science.
In this first full-length biography, Hahn illuminates the man in his historical setting. Elegantly written, Pierre Simon Laplace reflects a lifetime of thinking and research by a distinguished historian of science on the fortunes of a singularly important figure in the annals of Enlightenment science.
Roger Hahn has been studying this career for half a century. He has located letters and papers thought to be lost, written on the tough problems of Laplace’s religious beliefs and his relation with Newtonian cosmology, and at last written a new biography, first released under the title Le Système du monde in France a couple of years ago… Hahn’s aim here is to give the stern mechanisms of Laplacian science a human face… Hahn is at his best in his exposition of the materials with which he has been working since the 1950s: Laplace’s reflections on probability and religion, which include a striking group of manuscripts, preserved in relative secrecy in a black envelope in the library of the Académie des Sciences, where the great analyst set down his views on power, causation and the authority of scripture.
A compelling portrait…[and a] trim and accessible biography of Laplace… Previous biographies…have focused on Laplace’s scientific achievements. Hahn’s admirable goal is to integrate his science with his personal and public life. To do so, Hahn has painstakingly assembled the manuscript sources that make possible such speculation from the outside.
The book reflects a lifetime of thinking and research by a distinguished historian about the life and work of a singularly important figure in the history of Enlightenment science. It is really the first full-fledged biography of Laplace. While other authors have restricted themselves to offering accounts of his scientific work alone, Hahn, by connecting Laplace’s lived experience as a figure in Old Regime French society with the science he produced, does indeed give us a fully human Laplace.
- 322 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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