The Celestial Mechanic and the Earthly Naturalist

Natural History, November 1994 | Go to article overview

The Celestial Mechanic and the Earthly Naturalist


During the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, a statue of Louis Agassiz fell off the front of a building at Stanford University and landed just as neatly as could be, but upside down--feet in the air and head buried in the pavement. Agassiz had been both the greatest ichthyologist of his day and the last serious creationist holdout against evolution when he died in 1873. David Starr Jordan, the president of Stanford, was the greatest ichthyologist of the generation after Agassiz and an early and fervent Darwinian as well. Thus, the two men shared a similar passion for the same group of organisms, but couldn't have disagreed more on theoretical issues.

According to legend, Jordan delivered one of history's greatest quips when he went out to survey the damage and saw the inverted statue: "Oh well, I always thought better of Agassiz in the concrete than in the abstract." A lovely story that surely deserves to be true. But, alas, it is not. In his own autobiography, The Days of a Man, written in 1922, David Starr Jordan felt duty bound to debunk this tale and admit that he had never uttered the famous line, while the originator had used a less quotable and opposite version. Jordan wrote:

About the quadrangle the only touch of humor was furnished by the large marble statue of Agassiz, which had plunged from its place headfirst and waist-deep into the concrete pavement. Somebody--Dr. Argyll, perhaps--remarked that "Agassiz was great in the abstract but not in the concrete."

People are clever, but almost no one ever devises an optimal quip precisely at the needed moment. Therefore, virtually all great one-liners are later inventions--words that people wished they had spouted, but failed to manufacture at the truly opportune instant. Thus, the most famous scientific epithet of all is also, and alas, surely embellished if not downright phony.

We have all heard the story of Napoleon's meeting with the great astronomer Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827), identified in the Dictionary of Scientific Biography as "among the most influential scientists in all history." Laplace, or so the story goes, gave Napoleon a copy of his multivolume Mecanique celeste (Celestial Mechanics). Napoleon perused the tomes and asked Laplace how he could write so much about the workings of the heavens without once mentioning God, the author of the universe. Laplace replied: "Sire, I have no need of that hypothesis."

The actual quip, well attested in a surviving letter, is mildly clever, but pretty insipid compared with the legend, and made by the general rather than the scientist. Laplace had first met Napoleon in 1785 when he examined the future emperor, then an artillery cadet, in mathematics at the Ecole Militaire in Paris. In October 1799, three weeks before the coup d'etat that brought Napoleon to power, Laplace did present the very weighty first two volumes of his work to his former student. Napoleon hefted them and then promised to read them "in the first six months I have free." He then invited Laplace to dinner the next day "if you have nothing better to do."

I suspect that this legend attached itself to Laplace because he does represent the best candidate for such a tale. Laplace is science's chief apostle of strict determinism and heavenly stability based on obedience of all bodies to laws of nature that damp out any perturbation to restore regularity of motion and position (Laplace coined the term "celestial mechanics").

Even Isaac Newton, so often cited as the apostle of such a view, happily invoked a little help from divine intervention either to get things going or to restore regularity at any time in subsequent celestial history when nature's usual laws could not rein in a perturbation. Newton, for example, sought to reconcile geological evidence for the earth's antiquity with the Genesis story of creation in six days by arguing that the earth then rotated very slowly, thus producing "days" of any desired length. …

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