Pierre Louis Maupertuis : biography
Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis ( 17 July 1698 – 27 July 1759)some sources give the birth date as 28 September 1698. was a French mathematician, philosopher and man of letters. He became the Director of the Académie des Sciences, and the first President of the Prussian Academy of Science, at the invitation of Frederick the Great.
Maupertuis made an expedition to Lapland to determine the shape of the Earth. He is often credited with having invented the principle of least action; a version is known as Maupertuis’ principle – an integral equation that determines the path followed by a physical system. His work in natural history has its interesting points, since he touched on aspects of heredity and the struggle for life.
Maupertuis was born at Saint-Malo, France, to a moderately wealthy family of merchant-corsairs. He was educated in mathematics by a private tutor, and upon completing his formal education his father secured him a largely honorific cavalry commission. After three years in the cavalry, during which time he became acquainted with fashionable social and mathematical circles, he moved to Paris and began building his reputation as a mathematician and literary wit. In 1723 he was admitted to the Académie des Sciences.
His early mathematical work revolved around the vis viva controversy, for which Maupertuis developed and extended the work of Isaac Newton (whose theories were not yet widely accepted outside England) and argued against the waning Cartesian mechanics. In the 1730s, the shape of the Earth became a flashpoint in the battle among rival systems of mechanics. Maupertuis, based on his exposition of Newton (with the help of his mentor Johan Bernoulli) predicted that the Earth should be oblate, while his rival Jacques Cassini measured it astronomically to be prolate. In 1736 Maupertuis acted as chief of the French Geodesic Mission sent by King Louis XV to Lapland to measure the length of a degree of arc of the meridian. His results, which he published in a book detailing his procedures, essentially settled the controversy in his favor. The book included an adventure narrative of the expedition, and an account of the Käymäjärvi Inscriptions. On his return home he became a member of almost all the scientific societies of Europe.Terrall, Mary 2002. The man who flattened the Earth – Maupertuis and the sciences in the Enlightenment. Chicago. ISBN 0-226-79361-3
After the Lapland expedition, Maupertuis set about generalizing his earlier mathematical work, proposing the principle of least action as a metaphysical principle that underlies all the laws of mechanics. He also expanded into the biological realm, anonymously publishing a book that was part popular science, part philosophy, and part erotica: Vénus physique. In that work, Maupertuis proposed a theory of generation (i.e., reproduction) in which organic matter possessed a self-organizing “intelligence” that was analogous to the contemporary chemical concept of affinities, which was widely read and commented upon favorably by Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon. He later developed his views on living things further in a more formal pseudonymous work that explored heredity, collecting evidence that confirmed the contributions of both sexes and treated variations as statistical phenomena.
In 1740 Maupertuis went to Berlin at the invitation of Frederick II of Prussia, and took part in the Battle of Mollwitz, where he was taken prisoner by the Austrians. On his release he returned to Berlin, and thence to Paris, where he was elected director of the Academy of Sciences in 1742, and in the following year was admitted into the Académie française. Returning to Berlin in 1744, again at the desire of Frederick II, he was chosen president of the Prussian Royal Academy of Sciences in 1746, which he controlled with the help of Leonhard Euler until his death. His position became extremely awkward with the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War between his home country and his patron’s, and his reputation suffered in both Paris and Berlin. Finding his health declining, he retired in 1757 to the south of France, but went in 1758 to Basel, where he died a year later. Maupertuis’ difficult disposition involved him in constant quarrels, of which his controversies with Samuel König and Voltaire during the latter part of his life are examples.