Augustin-Louis Cauchy


Augustin-Louis Cauchy : biography

df=y September 8 – 23 May 1857

In August 1833 Cauchy left Turin for Prague, to become the science tutor of the thirteen-year-old Duke of Bordeaux Henri d’Artois (1820–1883), the exiled Crown Prince and grandson of Charles X. As a professor of the École Polytechnique, Cauchy had been a notoriously bad lecturer, assuming levels of understanding that only a few of his best students could reach, and cramming his allotted time with too much material. The young Duke had neither taste nor talent for either mathematics or science, so student and teacher were a perfect mismatch. Although Cauchy took his mission very seriously, he did this with great clumsiness, and with surprising lack of authority over the Duke.

During his civil engineering days, Cauchy once had been briefly in charge of repairing a few of the Parisian sewers, and he made the mistake of telling his pupil this; with great malice, the young Duke went about saying that Mister Cauchy started his career in the sewers of Paris. His role as tutor lasted until the Duke became eighteen years old, in September 1838. Cauchy did hardly any research during those five years, while the Duke acquired a lifelong dislike of mathematics. The only good that came out of this episode was Cauchy’s promotion to Baron, a title that Cauchy set great store by. In 1834, his wife and two daughters moved to Prague, and Cauchy was finally reunited with his family, after four years of exile.

Last years

Cauchy returned to Paris and his position at the Academy of Sciences late in 1838. He could not regain his teaching positions, because he still refused to swear an oath of allegiance. However, he desperately wanted to regain a formal position in Parisian science.

In August 1839 a vacancy appeared in the Bureau des Longitudes. This Bureau had some resemblance to the Academy; for instance, it had the right to co-opt its members. Further, it was believed that members of the Bureau could "forget" about the oath of allegiance, although formally, unlike the Academicians, they were obliged to take it. The Bureau des Longitudes was an organization founded in 1795 to solve the problem of determining position on sea – mainly the longitudinal coordinate, since latitude is easily determined from the position of the sun. Since it was thought that position on sea was best determined by astronomical observations, the Bureau had developed into an organization resembling an academy of astronomical sciences.

In November 1839 Cauchy was elected to the Bureau, and discovered immediately that the matter of the oath was not so easily dispensed with. Without his oath, the king refused to approve his election. For four years Cauchy was in the absurd position of being elected, but not being approved; hence, he was not a formal member of the Bureau, did not receive payment, could not participate in meetings, and could not submit papers. Still Cauchy refused to take any oaths; however, he did feel loyal enough to direct his research to celestial mechanics. In 1840, he presented a dozen papers on this topic to the Academy. He also described and illustrated the signed-digit representation of numbers, an innovation presented in England in 1727 by John Colson. The confounded membership of the Bureau lasted until the end of 1843, when Cauchy was finally replaced by Poinsot.

All through the nineteenth century the French educational system struggled with the question of separation of Church and State. The Catholic Church sought freedom of education; the Church found in Cauchy a staunch and illustrious ally in this struggle. He lent his prestige and knowledge to the École Normale Écclésiastique, a school in Paris run by Jesuits, for training teachers for their colleges. He also took part in the founding of the Institut Catholique. The purpose of this institute was to counter the effects of the absence of Catholic university education in France. These activities did not make Cauchy popular with his colleagues who, on the whole, supported the Enlightenment ideals of the French Revolution. When a chair of mathematics became vacant at the Collège de France in 1843, Cauchy applied for it, but got just three out of 45 votes.