The Man Who Flattened the Earth: Maupertuis and the Sciences in the Enlightenment

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University of Chicago Press, May 5, 2006 - Science - 468 pages
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Self-styled adventurer, literary wit, philosopher, and statesman of science, Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis (1698-1759) stood at the center of Enlightenment science and culture. Offering an elegant and accessible portrait of this remarkable man, Mary Terrall uses the story of Maupertuis's life, self-fashioning, and scientific works to explore what it meant to do science and to be a man of science in eighteenth-century Europe.

Beginning his scientific career as a mathematician in Paris, Maupertuis entered the public eye with a much-discussed expedition to Lapland, which confirmed Newton's calculation that the earth was flattened at the poles. He also made significant, and often intentionally controversial, contributions to physics, life science, navigation, astronomy, and metaphysics. Called to Berlin by Frederick the Great, Maupertuis moved to Prussia to preside over the Academy of Sciences there. Equally at home in salons, cafés, scientific academies, and royal courts, Maupertuis used his social connections and his printed works to enhance a carefully constructed reputation as both a man of letters and a man of science. His social and institutional affiliations, in turn, affected how Maupertuis formulated his ideas, how he presented them to his contemporaries, and the reactions they provoked.

Terrall not only illuminates the life and work of a colorful and important Enlightenment figure, but also uses his story to delve into many wider issues, including the development of scientific institutions, the impact of print culture on science, and the interactions of science and government. Smart and highly readable, Maupertuis will appeal to anyone interested in eighteenth-century science and culture.

“Terrall’s work is scholarship in the best sense. Her explanations of arcane 18th-century French physics, mathematics, astronomy, and biology are among the most lucid available in any language.”—Virginia Dawson, American Historical Review

Winner of the 2003 Pfizer Award from the History of Science Society
 

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Contents

1 Portrait of a Man of Science
xi
2 From SaintMalo to Paris
6
3 Mathematics and Mechanics in the Paris Academy of Sciences
25
4 The Expedition to Lapland
88
5 The Polemical Aftermath of the Lapland Expedition
130
6 Beyond Newton and on to Berlin
173
7 Toward a Science of Living Things
199
8 The Berlin Academy of Sciences
231
9 Teleology Cosmology and Least Action
270
10 Heredity and Materialism
310
11 The Final Years
349
Bibliography
371
Index
393
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Page 372 - Sur la figure de la terre et sur les moyens que l'astronomie et la géographie fournissent pour la déterminer, MAS MDCCXXXIII, 1735.

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About the author (2006)

Mary Terrall is an assistant professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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