*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,

where

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

(

School of Mathematics

Trinity College, Dublin