Mathematical moments - Pierre Louis Moreau de Maupertuis
Pierre Louis Moreau de Maupertuis
Born on the 28th of September 1698 in Saint Malo, France
Died on the 27th of July 1759 in Basel, Switzerland
For an originator of the principle of least action, Maupertuis led a surprisingly productive life, shunning neither effort nor intrigue. His early academic studies focussed on philosophy and music, were interrupted by a stint with the Musketeers, and resumed in Paris, where his interest in mathematics began to blossom. His first paper as a member of the Academie de Sciences explored the
influence of a musical instrument's shape on the sounds it produces, and was followed by a range of works on mathematical curves. The entirely non-mathematical Salamander - yes, the amphibian - was the topic of another of his papers from that period.
Keen to expand his mathematical expertise, Maupertuis relocated to Basle in 1729, where he lived with and studied under none other than Johann Bernoulli. Back in Paris, papers on astronomy, mechanics and differential equations followed, and Maupertuis established himself as an eclectic mathematical talent. But it wasn't all theory. In 1736 Maupertuis set out on an expedition to Lapland, his
mission to measure the length of a degree along the meridian. After enduring swarms of pesky insects, terrible cold and being shipwrecked, Maupertuis returned in 1737 with the knowledge that the Earth was oblate ... and two native Finnish girls. The latter did not further his academic standing, instead they laid him open to ridicule from his enemies.
And enemies there were many. Maupertuis, who was given to penning venomous attacks on his opponents, managed to fall out with Johann Bernoulli and later also with Voltaire with whom he had become friends after the expedition. On the upside, his academic talents inspired the interest of Frederick the Great, who in 1740 invited him to become president of the brand new Berlin Academy. After
visiting Frederick in Berlin, Maupertuis ended up on the battle field on the side of the Prussians, was taken prisoner by the Austrians, but was eventually released, shaken but unharmed. In 1746, after his career had made good progress in Paris, he did take the presidency of the Berlin Academy and moved to Berlin permanently.
Maupertuis talents were indeed eclectic. He published on a range of subjects including mathematics, philosophy and astronomy. A hundred years before Darwin he almost formulated Darwin's theory of evolution. But it is probably the principle of least action that he is most remembered for now. The principle says that physical systems, in getting from state A to state B, always choose the path
that minimises the effort required. This begs the question of who or what does the minimising, and the principle opened up all sorts of cans of teleological worms.
Maupertuis was extremely proud of his principle of least action, so it came as a shock when he accidentally recommended a paper for publication which stated that it wasn't him but Leibniz who first postulated it. The resulting priority dispute cast a shadow over the last years of his life and had an adverse effect on his health. In 1756 he left Berlin for good and three years later died on a
journey he undertook to improve his health.
An excellent series of nine films taking you into the fourth dimension is now freely available online and cheaply available on DVD. Using superb graphics and clear, concise, no-frills presentation, the series starts with a very basic introduction to projections, then steps from two dimensions up into three and then four, and ends up with some quite
sophisticated - and very pretty - geometric objects and concepts. Everyone, from complete novice to university students, will find something interesting in this series, and at 13 minutes length each, the films are a great resource for the class room. The website contains detailed background info on each episode. Go have a look, it's well worth it!
BBC Four will launch a new three-part TV series on maths at 9pm this coming Monday the 6th of October. In The story of maths Marcus du Sautoy, Oxford mathematician and one of the UK's finest maths popularisers, describes the often surprising lives of the great mathematicians, explains the development of the key mathematical ideas
and shows how — in a multitude of unusual ways — those ideas underpin the science, technology and culture that shape our world. The first episode will look at the contributions from the ancient Greeks.
If you prefer the radio, then tune into BBC Radio 4's In our time on Thursday the 9th of October at 9am and again at 9.30pm. Melvyn Bragg together with experts including John D Barrow will discuss Gödel's infamous incompleteness theorem.
Do you think "The story of maths" on BBC 4, will be viewable in some format for those outside the UK?
I believe Simon Singh's "Fermat's Last Theorem" documentary originally aired on BBC, but was distributed to PBS US. I enjoyed it so much, I went out and bought the book. It would be nice to listen/watch these intelligent programs in a more timely fashion, rather than several years later :-)
I've been able to download a few BBC mp3 files and listen to them on the go.
...and you may be interested to know that one of du Sautoy's previous programmes, The music of the primes, is available on DVD from the Open University at http://www.ouw.co.uk/products/XM002_DVDSERIES.shtm.
Alles Gute zum Geburtstag! Joyeux Anniversaire! Suk San Wan Keut! Sun Yat Fai Lok! Hartelijk gefeliciteerd! Felichan Naskightagon! And Happy Birthday to Google in the other 93-plus languages it speaks!
As the web search engine Google celebrates its 10th birthday it is hard to imagine life online without it. It has become such an indispensable tool that we don't just search for something any more, we "google" it, as recognised by the Oxford English Dictionary in 2006. What many people don't realise is that Google's rise to become one of the most successful search engines on the web today is due to the mathematical algorithm PageRank, devised by Sergey Brin and Lawrence Page, the founders of Google. This
algorithm not only decides which webpages match your search criteria (which all search engines do), but also which are more important and returns these at the top of the results.
More evidence of the intrinsic beauty of maths, this time shown in a lovely slideshow from the BBC, narrated by mathematician Lasse Rempe from the University of Liverpool.
Rempe works in the area of dynamical systems: systems that change over time and can be found everywhere from the stockmarket to the weather. In the slideshow, he explains how dynamical systems can be generated from very simple polynomials yet produce extremely complex behaviour, and how these systems can be graphically represented by such beautiful images.
As John Barrow told us in our first image-enhanced Plus podcast Cosmic Imagery, mathematical images such as these have actually been responsible for changing science and how we see the world around us . So sit back with your coffee and enjoy the shows!