Alexis Claude Clairaut (1713 - 1765)

From `A Short Account of the History of Mathematics' (4th edition, 1908) by W. W. Rouse Ball.

Alexis Claude Clairaut was born at Paris on May 13, 1713, and died there on May 17, 1765. He belongs to the small group of children who, though of exceptional precocity, survive and maintain their powers when grown up. As early as the age of twelve he wrote a memoir on four geometrical curves; but his first important work was a treatise on tortuous curves, published when he was eighteen - a work which procured for him admission to the French Academy. In 1731 he gave a demonstration of the fact noted by Newton that all curves of the third order were projections of one of five parabolas.

In 1741 Clairaut went on a scientific expedition to measure the length of a meridian degree on the earth's surface, and on his return in 1743 he published his Théorie de la figure de la terre. This is founded on a paper by Maclaurin, wherein it had been shewn that a mass of homogeneous fluid set in rotation about a line through its centre of mass would, under the mutual attraction of its particles, take the form of a spheroid. This work of Clairaut treated of heterogeneous spheroids and contains the proof of his formula for the accelerating effect of gravity in a place of latitude l, namely,

g = G { 1 + 5/2 m - \epsilon) sin^2 l },
where G is the value of equatorial gravity, m the ratio of the centrifugal force to gravity at the equator, and \epsilon   the ellipticity of a meridian section of the earth. In 1849 Stokes shewed that the same result was true whatever was the interior constitution or density of the earth, provide the surface was a spheroid of equilibrium of small ellipticity.

Impressed by the power of geometry as shewn in the writings of Newton and Maclaurin, Clairaut abandoned analysis, and his next work, the Théorie de la lune, published in 1752, is strictly Newtonian in character. This contains the explanation of the motion of the apse which had previously puzzled astronomers, and which Clairaut had at first deemed so inexplicable that he was on the point of publishing a new hypothesis as to the law of attraction when it occurred to him to carry the approximation to the third order, and he thereupon found that the result was in accordance with the observations. This was followed in 1754 by some lunar tables. Clairaut subsequently wrote various papers on the orbit of the moon, and on the motion of comets as affected by the perturbation of the planets, particularly on the path of Halley's comet.

His growing popularity in society hindered his scientific work: ``engagé,'' says Bossut, ``à des soupers, à des veilles, entraîné par un goût vif pour les femmes, voulant allier le plaisir à ses travaux ordinaires, il perdit le repos, la santé, enfin la vie à l'âge de cinquante-deux ans.''

This page is included in a collection of mathematical biographies taken from A Short Account of the History of Mathematics by W. W. Rouse Ball (4th Edition, 1908).

Transcribed by

D.R. Wilkins
School of Mathematics
Trinity College, Dublin