Astronomy Fundamentals

Eighteenth and Nineteenth-Century Advances

Who was Pierre-Simon de Laplace and what did he contribute to mechanics?

French mathematician and astronomer Pierre-Simon de Laplace (1749–1827) made a number of key contributions to mathematics, astronomy, and other sciences. Together with chemist Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, Laplace helped develop our understanding of the interrelationship of chemical reactions and heat. In physics, Laplace applied the calculus, recently invented by Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, to calculate the forces acting between particles of matter, light, heat, and electricity. Laplace and his colleagues created systems of equations that explained the refraction of light, the conduction of heat, the flexibility of solid objects, and the distribution of electricity on conductors.

In astronomy, Laplace was primarily interested in the movements of the objects in the solar system and their complex gravitational interactions. He published his results over many years in a multi-volume book called Traite de Mechanique Celeste (“Celestial Mechanics”). The first volume of Celestial Mechanics was published in 1799. Laplace also developed a nebular theory of the formation of the Sun and our solar system, and, along with his colleague John Michel, he introduced the idea of a “dark star,” which later came to be called a black hole. Because of his brilliance, and because his work expanded on the gravitational theories of Isaac Newton, Laplace earned the nickname “The French Newton.”

Pierre-Simon de Laplace


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