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Great Astronomers

The author of the "Mecanique Celeste" was born at Beaumont-en- Auge, near Honfleur,
in 1749, just thirteen years later than his renowned friend Lagrange. His father was a
farmer, but appears to have been in a position to provide a good education for a son who
seemed promising. Considering the unorthodoxy in religious matters which is generally
said to have characterized Laplace in later years, it is interesting to note that when he was
a boy the subject which first claimed his attention was theology. He was, however, soon
introduced to the study of mathematics, in which he presently became so proficient, that
while he was still no more than eighteen years old, he obtained employment as a
mathematical teacher in his native town.
Desiring wider opportunities for study and for the acquisition of fame than could be
obtained in the narrow associations of provincial life, young Laplace started for Paris,
being provided with letters of introduction to D'Alembert, who then occupied the most
prominent position as a mathematician in France, if not in the whole of Europe.
D'Alembert's fame was indeed so brilliant that Catherine the Great wrote to ask him to
undertake the education of her Son, and promised the splendid income of a hundred
thousand francs. He preferred, however, a quiet life of research in Paris, although there
was but a modest salary attached to his office. The philosopher accordingly declined the
alluring offer to go to Russia, even though Catherine wrote again to say: "I know that
your refusal arises from your desire to cultivate your studies and your friendships in
quiet. But this is of no consequence: bring all your friends with you, and I promise you
that both you and they shall have every accommodation in my power." With equal
firmness the illustrious mathematician resisted the manifold attractions with which
Frederick the Great sought to induce him, to take up his residence at Berlin. In reading of
these invitations we cannot but be struck at the extraordinary respect which was then paid
to scientific distinction. It must be remembered that the discoveries of such a man as
D'Alembert were utterly incapable of being appreciated except by those who possessed a
high degree of mathematical culture. We nevertheless find the potentates of Russia and
Prussia entreating and, as it happens, vainly entreating, the most distinguished
mathematician in France to accept the positions that they were proud to offer him.
It was to D'Alembert, the profound mathematician, that young Laplace, the son of the
country farmer, presented his letters of introduction. But those letters seem to have
elicited no reply, whereupon Laplace wrote to D'Alembert submitting a discussion on
some point in Dynamics. This letter instantly produced the desired effect. D'Alembert
thought that such mathematical talent as the young man displayed was in itself the best of
introductions to his favour. It could not be overlooked, and accordingly he invited
Laplace to come and see him. Laplace, of course, presented himself, and ere long
D'Alembert obtained for the rising philosopher a professorship of mathematics in the
Military School in Paris. This gave the brilliant young mathematician the opening for
which he sought, and he quickly availed himself of it.