Wikimedia needs your help in its US$200,000 fund drive. See our fundraising page for details.

Pierre-Simon Laplace

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

(Redirected from Pierre Simon de Laplace)
Pierre-Simon Laplace
Pierre-Simon Laplace

Pierre-Simon, Marquis de Laplace (March 23, 1749March 5, 1827) was a French mathematician and astronomer who put the final capstone on mathematical astronomy by summarizing and extending the work of his predecessors in his five volume Mécanique Céleste (Celestial Mechanics) (1799-1825). This masterpiece translated the geometrical study of mechanics used by Newton to one based on calculus, known as physical mechanics [1]. He is also the discoverer of Laplace's equation and the Laplace transform, which appear in all branches of mathematical physics - a field he took a leading role in forming. He became count of the Empire in 1806 and was named a marquis in 1817 after the restoration of the Bourbons. Pierre-Simon Laplace was among the most influential scientists in history.

He was a believer in causal determinism. The Laplacian differential operator, much relied-upon in applied mathematics, is named after him. While still a teenager, having studied mathematics only shortly, he quickly impressed d'Alembert with his mathematical ability, who made effort to secure him a professorship - the undertaking was found with ease owing to his newfound pupil's genius. He is remembered as one of the greatest scientists of all time (sometimes referred to as a French Newton) with a natural phenomenal mathematical faculty possessed by none of his contemporaries. It does appear that Laplace was not modest about his abilities and achievements, and he probably failed to recognise the effect of his attitude on his colleagues. Lexell visited the Académie des Sciences in Paris in 1780-81 and reported that Laplace let it be known widely that he considered himself the best mathematician in France. The effect on his colleagues would have been only mildly eased by the fact that Laplace was right!

Laplace had a wide knowledge of all sciences and dominated all discussions in the Académie. Quite uniquely for a mathematical prodigy of his skill, Laplace viewed mathematics as nothing in itself but a tool to be called upon in the investigation of a scientific or practical inquiry. Further, Laplace would often omit details of proof in many of his works, stating that one can easily show their validity, although, in fact, the proof would require the keenest analytical mind to comprehend - one such as his. This habit of his would often necessitate him to rework many of his results later for reference, sometimes taking days to complete. Laplace spent much of his life working on mathematical astronomy that culminated in his masterpiece on the proof of the dynamic stability of the solar system with the assumption that it consists of a collection of rigid bodies moving in a vacuum. He independently formulated the nebular hypothesis and was one of the first scientists to postulate the existence of black holes and the notion of gravitational collapse. While he conducted much research in physics, another major theme of his life's endeavors was probability theory. In his Essai philosophique sur les probabilités, Laplace set out a mathematical system of inductive reasoning based on probability, which we would today recognise as Bayesian. One well-known formula arising from his system is the rule of succession. Suppose that some trial has only two possible outcomes, labeled "success" and "failure". Under the assumption that little or nothing is known a priori about the relative plausibilities of the outcomes, Laplace derived a formula for the probability that the next trial will be a success.

\Pr(\mbox{next outcome is success}) = \frac{s+1}{n+2},

where s is the number of previously observed successes and n is the total number of observed trials. It is still used as an estimator for the probability of an event if we know the event space, but only have a small number of samples.

The rule of succession has been subject to much criticism, partly due to the example which Laplace chose to illustrate it. He calculated that the probability that the sun will rise tomorrow, given that it has never failed to in the past, was

\Pr(\mbox{sun will rise tomorrow}) = \frac{d+1}{d+2},

where d is the number of times the sun has risen in the past. This result has been derided as absurd, and some authors have concluded that all applications of the Rule of Succession are absurd by extension. However, Laplace was fully aware of the absurdity of the result; immediately following the example, he wrote, "But this number [i.e., the probability that the sun will rise tomorrow] is far greater for him who, seeing in the totality of phenomena the principle regulating the days and seasons, realizes that nothing at the present moment can arrest the course of it."

Laplace strongly believed in causal determinism, which is expressed in the following quote from the introduction to the Essai:

"We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes."

This intellect is often referred to as Laplace's demon (in the same vein as Maxwell's demon). Note that the description of the hypothetical intellect described above by Laplace as a demon does not come from Laplace, but from later biographers: Laplace saw himself as a scientist that hoped that humanity would progress in a better scientific understanding of the world, which, if and when eventually completed, would still need a tremendous calculating power to compute it all in a single instant. While Laplace saw foremost practical problems for mankind to reach this ultimate stage of knowledge and computation, later interpretations of quantum mechanics, which were adopted by philosophers defending the existence of free will, also leave the theoretical possibility of such an "intellect" contested: for a further discussion of this issue, see also: determinism.

There has recently been proposed a limit on the computational power of the universe, ie the ability of Laplace's Demon to process an infinite amount of information. The limit is based on the maximum entropy of the universe, the speed of light, and the minimum amount of time taken to move information across the Planck length, and the figure turns out to be 2130 bits. Accordingly, anything that requires more than this amount of data cannot be computed in the amount of time that has lapsed so far in the universe. Predicting the rise of life in the universe, for example, requires vastly more data than this, and so, according to the theory, is computationally infeasible to predict.


Wikiquote has a collection of quotations by or about:
  • What we know is not much. What we do not know is immense.
  • I have no need of that hypothesis. ("Je n'ai pas besoin de cette hypothèse", as a reply to Napoleon, who had asked why he hadn't mentioned God in his book on astronomy)
  • "It is therefore obvious that..." (frequently used in the Celestial Mechanics when he had proved something and mislaid the proof, or found it clumsy. Notorious as a signal for something true, but hard to prove.)

Further reading

  • Simmons, J, The giant book of scientists -- The 100 greatest minds of all time, Sydney: The Book Company, (1996)

External links

Preceded by:
Michel-Louis-Étienne Regnaud de Saint-Jean d'Angély
Seat 8
Académie française
Succeeded by:
Pierre-Paul Royer-Collard
Personal tools