Alexis Clairaut

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Alexis Claude Clairaut
Alexis Clairault.jpg
Alexis Claude Clairaut
Born (1713-05-13)13 May 1713
Died 17 May 1765(1765-05-17) (aged 52)
Nationality French
Fields Mathematics
Known for Clairaut's theorem, Clairaut's equation, Clairaut's relation, apsidal precession

Alexis Claude Clairaut (13 May 1713 – 17 May 1765) was a French mathematician, astronomer, and geophysicist. He was a prominent Newtonian whose work helped to establish the validity of the principles and results that Sir Isaac Newton had outlined in the Principia of 1687. Clairaut was one of the key figures in the expedition to Lapland that helped to confirm Newton's theory for the figure of the Earth. In that context, Clairaut worked out a mathematical result now known as "Clairaut's theorem". He also tackled the gravitational three-body problem, being the first to obtain a satisfactory result for the apsidal precession of the Moon's orbit. In mathematics he is also credited with Clairaut's equation and Clairaut's relation.


Childhood and early life[edit]

Clairaut was born in Paris, France, to Jean-Babtiste and Catherine Petit Clairaut. The couple had 20 children, however only a few of them survived childbirth.[1] His father taught mathematics. Alexis was a prodigy — at the age of ten he began studying calculus. At the age of twelve he wrote a memoir on four geometrical curves and under his father's tutelage he made such rapid progress in the subject that in his thirteenth year he read before the Académie française an account of the properties of four curves which he had discovered. When only sixteen he finished a treatise on tortuous curves, Recherches sur les courbes a double courbure, which, on its publication in 1731, procured his admission into the French Academy of Sciences, although he was below the legal age as he was only eighteen.

Personal life and death[edit]

Clairaut was unmarried, and known for leading an active social life.[1] His growing popularity in society hindered his scientific work: "He was focused," says Bossut, "with dining and with evenings, coupled with a lively taste for women, and seeking to make his pleasures into his day to day work, he lost rest, health, and finally life at the age of fifty-two." Though he led a fulfilling social life, he was very prominent in the advancement of learning in young mathematicians.

He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London in November, 1737.[2]

Clairaut died in Paris in 1765.

Mathematical and Scientific Works[edit]

The shape of the Earth[edit]

In 1736, together with Pierre Louis Maupertuis, he took part in the expedition to Lapland, which was undertaken for the purpose of estimating a degree of the meridian arc.[3] The goal of the excursion was to geometrically calculate the shape of the Earth, which Sir Issac Newton theorized in his book Principia was an ellipsoid shape. They sought to prove if Newton's theory and calculations were correct or not. Before the expedition team returned to Paris, Clairaut sent his calculations to the Royal Society of London. The writing was later published by the society in the 1736-37 volume of Philosophical Transactions.[4] Initially, Clairaut disagrees with Newton's theory on the shape of the Earth. In the article, he outlines several key problems that effectively disprove Newton's calculations, and provides some solutions to the complications. The issues addressed include calculating gravitational attraction, the rotation of an ellipsoid on its axis, and the difference in density of an ellipsoid on its axes.[4] At the end of his letter, Clairaut writes that:

"It appears even Sir Isaac Newton was of the opinion, that it was necessary the Earth should be more dense toward the center, in order to be so much the flatter at the poles: and that it followed from this greater flatness, that gravity increased so much the more from the equator towards the Pole."[4]

This conclusion suggests not only that the Earth is of an oblate ellipsoid shape, but it is flattened more at the poles and is wider at the center.

His article in Philosophical Transactions created much controversy, as he addressed the problems of Newton's theory, but provided few solutions to how to fix the calculations. After his return, he published his treatise Théorie de la figure de la terre (1743). In this work he promulgated the theorem, known as Clairaut's theorem, which connects the gravity at points on the surface of a rotating ellipsoid with the compression and the centrifugal force at the equator. This hydrostatic model of the shape of the Earth was founded on a paper by Colin Maclaurin, which had shown 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 an ellipsoid. Under the assumption that the Earth was composed of concentric ellipsoidal shells of uniform density, Clairaut's theorem could be applied to it, and allowed the ellipticity of the Earth to be calculated from surface measurements of gravity. This proved Sir Issac Newton's theory that the shape of the Earth was an oblate ellipsoid.[1] In 1849 Stokes showed that Clairaut's result was true whatever the interior constitution or density of the Earth, provided the surface was a spheroid of equilibrium of small ellipticity.


In 1741, Alexis Clairaut wrote a book called Èléments de Géométrie. The book outlines the basic concepts of geometry. Geometry in the 1700s was complex to the average learner. It was considered to be a dry subject. Clairaut saw this trend, and wrote the book in an attempt to make the subject more interesting for the average learner. He believed that instead of having students repeatedly work problems that they did not fully understand, it was imperative for them to make discoveries themselves in a form of active, experiential learning.[5] He begins the book by comparing geometric shapes to measurements of land, as it was a subject that most anyone could relate to. He covers topics from lines, shapes, and even some three dimensional objects. Throughout the book, he continuously relates different concepts such as physics, astrology, and other branches of mathematics to geometry. Some of the theories and learning methods outlined in the book are still used by teachers today, in geometry and other topics.[6]

Focus on astronomical motion[edit]

One of most controversial issues of the 18th century was the problem of three bodies, or how the Earth, moon, and Sun are attracted to one another. With the use of the recently founded Leibnizian calculus, Clairaut was able to solve the problem using four differential equations.[7] He was also able to incorporate Newton's inverse-square law and law of attraction into his solution, with minor edits to it. However, these equations only offered approximate measurement, and no exact calculations. Another issue still remained with the three body problem; how the moon rotates on its apsides. Even Newton could account for only half of the motion of the apsides.[7] This issue had puzzled astronomers. In fact, Clairaut had at first deemed the dilemma so inexplicable, that he was on the point of publishing a new hypothesis as to the law of attraction.

The question of the apsides was a heated debate topic in Europe. Along with Clairaut, there were two other mathematicians who were racing to provide the first explanation for the three body problem; Leonhard Euler and Jean le Rond d'Alembert.[7] Euler and d'Alembert were arguing against the use of Newtonian laws to solve the three body problem. Euler in particular believed that the inverse square law needed revision in order to accurately calculate the apsides of the moon.

Despite the hectic competition to come up with the correct solution, Clairaut obtained an ingenious approximate solution of the problem of the three bodies. In 1750 he gained the prize of the St Petersburg Academy for his essay Théorie de la lune; the team made up of Clairaut, Jérome Lalande and Nicole Reine Lepaute successfully computed the date of the 1759 return of Halley's comet.[8] The Théorie de la lune is strictly Newtonian in character. This contains the explanation of the motion of the apsis. 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, which he computed using a form of the discrete Fourier transform.[9]

The new found solution to the problem of three bodies ended up meaning more than proving Newton's laws correct. The unraveling of the problem of three bodies also had practical importance. It allowed sailors to determine the longitudinal direction of their ships, which was crucial not only in sailing to a location, but finding their way home as well.[7] This held economic implications as well, because sailors were able to more easily find destinations of trade based on the longitudinal measures.

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. He also used applied mathematics to study Venus, taking accurate measurements of the planet's size and distance from the Earth. This was the first precise reckoning of the planet's size.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Knight, Judson (2000). "Alexis Claude Clairaut". Science and Its Times. Retrieved 2016.  Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  2. ^ "Library and Archive Catalogue". Royal Society. Retrieved 22 December 2010. 
  3. ^ O'Connor and, J. J.; E. F. Robertson (October 1998). "Alexis Clairaut". MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive. School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of St Andrews, Scotland. Retrieved 2009-03-12. 
  4. ^ a b c Claude, Alexis; Colson, John (1737). "An Inquiry concerning the Figure of Such Planets as Revolve about an Axis, Supposing the Density Continually to Vary, from the Centre towards the Surface". Philosophical Transactions. JSTOR 103921. 
  5. ^ Clairaut, Alexis Claude (1881-01-01). Elements of geometry, tr. by J. Kaines. 
  6. ^ Smith, David (1921). "Review of Èléments de Géométrie. 2 vols.". The Mathematics Teacher. 
  7. ^ a b c d Bodenmann, Siegfried (January 2010). "The 18th century battle over lunar motion". Physics Today. Retrieved April 25, 2016. 
  8. ^ Grier, David Alan (2005). "The First Anticipated Return: Halley's Comet 1758". When Computers Were Human. Princeton: Princeton University Press. pp. 11–25. ISBN 0-691-09157-9. 
  9. ^ Terras, Audrey (1999). Fourier analysis on finite groups and applications. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-45718-7. , p. 30


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