Introducing Mathematicians from History 5 : Pierre-Simon Laplace

In blog 5 in our series on famous mathematicians, an Oxford Home Schooling tutor looks at the life of Pierre-Simon Laplace.

When and where did he live?

Like Descartes, Laplace was born in France but over 150 years later in 1749. He was a member of the French Academy of Sciences and they cancelled their meeting on the day of his death in 1827 as a mark of respect.

Why is he famous?

Laplace is famous for his work in many areas of mathematics including calculus and probability as well as for his writings on what he called “celestial mechanics”, the motion of planets in the solar system.

Unusual facts

Laplace was a contemporary of Napolean and was Minister of the Interior in his government. He was dismissed after six weeks, however, and while the first edition of his writings on probability is dedicated to Napolean later editions are not.

Laplace’s brain was reportedly smaller than average! It was removed after his death and displayed in a museum for some time – yuck!

Mathematical proofs by Laplace often contained lines such as “it is therefore obvious that…” indicating that he had either mislaid that part of the proof or not quite completed it. Such an approach is not recommended for students of mathematics today!

Links to modern mathematics

Laplace was one of the first people to formalise writing on probability. He popularised basic principles such as “the probability of an event occurring is equal to the number of favourable outcomes divided by the number of possible outcomes” which we still use at Key Stage 3 and -GCSE level today. Due to his more advanced work on calculus he has a transform and an equation named after him, which you are sure to meet if you study mathematics at university.

Debby Gill


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