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A History of Science
Williams 
Tome I
Tome II
Tome III Tome IV

Book 3, chapter I
The successors of Newton in astronomy
French astronomers
Williams
Meanwhile, astronomers across the channel were by no means idle. In France several successful observers were making many additions to the already long list of observations of the first astronomer of the Royal Observatory of Paris, Dominic Cassini (1625-1712), whose reputation among his contemporaries was much greater than among succeeding generations of astronomers. Perhaps the most deserving of these successors was Nicolas Louis de Lacaille (1713-1762), a theologian who had been educated at the expense of the Duke of Bourbon, and who, soon after completing his clerical studies, came under the patronage of Cassini, whose attention had been called to the young man's interest in the sciences. One of Lacaille's first under-takings was the remeasuring of the French are of the meridian, which had been incorrectly measured by his patron in 1684. This was begun in 1739, and occupied him for two years before successfully completed. As a reward, however, he was admitted to the academy and appointed mathematical professor in Mazarin College.

In 1751 he went to the Cape of Good Hope for the purpose of determining the sun's parallax by observations of the parallaxes of Mars and Venus, and incidentally to make observations on the other southern hemisphere stars. The results of this undertaking were most successful, and were given in his Coelum australe stelligerum, etc., published in 1763. In this he shows that in the course of a single year he had observed some ten thousand stars, and computed the places of one thousand nine hundred and forty-two of them, measured a degree of the meridian, and made many observations of the moon - productive industry seldom equalled in a single year in any field. These observations were of great service to the astronomers, as they afforded the opportunity of comparing the stars of the southern hemisphere with those of the northern, which were being observed simultaneously by Lelande at Berlin.

Lacaille's observations followed closely upon the determination of an absorbing question which occupied the attention of the astronomers in the early part of the century. This question was as to the shape of the earth - whether it was actually flattened at the poles. To settle this question once for all the Academy of Sciences decided to make the actual measurement of the length of two degrees, one as near the pole as possible, the other at the equator. Accordingly, three astronomers, Godin, Bouguer, and La Condamine, made the journey to a spot on the equator in Peru, while four astronomers, Camus, Clairaut, Maupertuis, and Lemonnier, made a voyage to a place selected in Lapland. The result of these expeditions was the determination that the globe is oblately spheroidal.

A great contemporary and fellow-countryman of Lacaille was Jean Le Rond d'Alembert (1717-1783), who, although not primarily an astronomer, did so much with his mathematical calculations to aid that science that his name is closely connected with its progress during the eighteenth century. D'Alembert, who became one of the best-known men of science of his day, and whose services were eagerly sought by the rulers of Europe, began life as a foundling, having been exposed in one of the markets of Paris. The sickly infant was adopted and cared for in the family of a poor glazier, and treated as a member of the family. In later years, however, after the foundling had become famous throughout Europe, his mother, Madame Tencin, sent for him, and acknowledged her relationship. It is more than likely that the great philosopher believed her story, but if so he did not allow her the satisfaction of knowing his belief, declaring always that Madame Tencin could "not be nearer than a step-mother to him, since his mother was the wife of the glazier."

D'Alembert did much for the cause of science by his example as well as by his discoveries. By living a plain but honest life, declining magnificent offers of positions from royal patrons, at the same time refusing to grovel before nobility, he set a worthy example to other philosophers whose cringing and pusillanimous attitude towards persons of wealth or position had hitherto earned them the contempt of the upper classes.

His direct additions to astronomy are several, among others the determination of the mutation of the axis of the earth. He also determined the ratio of the attractive forces of the sun and moon, which he found to be about as seven to three. From this he reached the conclusion that the earth must be seventy times greater than the moon. The first two volumes of his Researches on the Systems of the World, published in 1754, are largely devoted to mathematical and astronomical problems, many of them of little importance now, but of great interest to astronomers at that time.

Another great contemporary of D'Alembert, whose name is closely associated and frequently confounded with his, was Jean Baptiste Joseph Delambre (1749- 1822). More fortunate in birth as also in his educational advantages, Delambre as a youth began his studies under the celebrated poet Delille. Later he was obliged to struggle against poverty, supporting himself for a time by making translations from Latin, Greek, Italian, and English, and acting as tutor in private families. The turning-point of his fortune came when the attention of Lalande was called to the young man by his remarkable memory, and Lalande soon showed his admiration by giving Delambre certain difficult astronomical problems to solve. By performing these tasks successfully his future as an astronomer became assured. At that time the planet Uranus had just been discovered by Herschel, and the Academy of Sciences offered as the subject for one of its prizes the determination of the planet's orbit. Delambre made this determination and won the prize - a feat that brought him at once into prominence.

By his writings he probably did as much towards perfecting modern astronomy as any one man. His History of Astronomy is not merely a narrative of progress of astronomy but a complete abstract of all the celebrated works written on the subject. Thus he became famous as an historian as well as an astronomer.


 

 

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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.