[In Our Time] Pierre-Simon Laplace

Pierre-Simon Laplace

08/04/2021 by BBC Radio 4

Web player: https://podcastaddict.com/episode/121489605

Episode: http://open.live.bbc.co.uk/mediaselector/6/redir/version/2.0/mediaset/audio-nondrm-download/proto/http/vpid/p09cy5cm.mp3

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Laplace (1749-1827) who was a giant in the world of mathematics both before and after the French Revolution. He addressed one of the great questions of his age, raised but side-stepped by Newton: was the Solar System stable, or would the planets crash into the Sun, as it appeared Jupiter might, or even spin away like Saturn threatened to do? He advanced ideas on probability, long the preserve of card players, and expanded them out across science; he hypothesised why the planets rotate in the same direction; and he asked if the Universe was deterministic, so that if you knew everything about all the particles then you could predict the future. He also devised the metric system and reputedly came up with the name ‘metre’.

With Marcus du Sautoy Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science and Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford Timothy Gowers Professor of Mathematics at the College de France And Colva Roney-Dougal Professor of Pure Mathematics at the University of St Andrews

Producer: Simon Tillotson

Listen Date: 7 May 2021


  • Brought back memories of first year engineering mathematics and the Laplace transform, as well as the shameful realisation that I had completely forgotten what the transform was.
  • Learned that Laplace was not merely the inventor of the Laplace transform, but had contributed to the understanding of the normal distribution, repopularised Bayesian mathematics, and apparently, been buddies (or a cheap guy who stole his credit) with Lagrange of Lagrange points fame.
  • Also learned about the Laplacian, for the first time ever, unless I was paying so little attention in college that I never registered it (this is eminently possible).
  • Also learned that Laplace had sailed through three or four changes of regime without being executed by any of them.
  • He had been home minister of the French empire for a time, in fact.

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