Pierre Louis Maupertuis and the Shape of the Earth

Pierre Louis Maupertuis' view of the Earth's shape

Pierre Louis Maupertuis’ view of the Earth’s shape

On September 28, 1698, French mathematician, philosopher and man of letters Pierre Louis Maupertuis was born. Maupertuis made an expedition to Lapland to determine the shape of the Earth. He is also credited with having invented the principle of least action, an integral equation that determines the path followed by a physical system.

Pierre Louis Maupertuis was born at Saint-Malo, France. He was educated in mathematics by a private tutor, Nicolas Guisnée and after completing his formal education, Maupertuis entered a cavalry commission where he became acquainted with fashionable social and mathematical circles. After three years in the cavalry, Maupertuis moved to Paris and began building his reputation as a mathematician and literary wit. In 1723 he was admitted to the Académie des Sciences. During his first years of study, Maupertuis devoted much of his time to the vis viva controversy and extended the work of Isaac Newton. Vis viva is an obsolete scientific theory that served as an elementary and limited early formulation of the principle of conservation of energy.

The shape of the Earth became a major issue of science in the 1730s. Pierre Louis Maupertuis predicted the Earth to be more oblate shaped, which he based on his studies of Newton’s works. However, his rival Cassini measured Earth to be prolate. In 1736 Maupertuis acted as chief of the French Geodesic Mission sent by King Louis XV to Lapland to measure the length of a degree of arc of the meridian. His results, which he published in a book detailing his procedures, essentially settled the controversy in his favor. The book also included an adventure narrative of the expedition, and an account of the Käymäjärvi Inscriptions.

After returning from the Lapland expedition, Pierre Louis Maupertuis increased his reputation greatly and then indended to continue his earler scientific work. He proposed the principle of least action as a metaphysical principle that underlies all the laws of mechanics. However, the scientist also expanded into the biological realm, anonymously publishing a book that was part popular science, part philosophy, and part erotica: Vénus physique. In his work, Maupertuis proposed a theory of generation in which organic matter possessed a self-organizing intelligence that was analogous to the contemporary chemical concept of affinities. The work was widely read and commented upon favorably by Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon.

Frederick II of Prussia invited Maupertuis a few times and appointed him as president of the Royal Prussian Academy of Sciences in 1746. He lead the organisation with the help of Leonhard Euler until his death.

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