Pierre-Simon Laplace

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Pierre-Simon Laplace

Pierre-Simon Laplace (March 23 1749March 5 1827) was a French mathematician and astronomer, the discoverer of the Laplace transform and Laplace's equation. He was a believer in causal determinism. The Laplacian differential operator, much relied-upon in applied mathematics, is named after him.

One well-known formula associated with Laplace is the rule of succession. Suppose that some trial has only two possible outcomes, labelled "success" and "failure". Under the assumption that little or nothing is known a priori about the relative plausibilities of the outcomes, Laplace derived a formula for the probability that the next trial will be a success.

<math>\Pr(\mbox{next outcome is success}) = \frac{s+1}{n+2}</math>,

where s is the number of previously observed successes and n is the total number of observed trials. It is still used as an estimator for the probability of an event if we know the event space, but only have a small number of samples.

The rule of succession has been subject to much criticism, partly due to the example which Laplace chose to illustrate it. He calculated that the probability that the sun will rise tomorrow, given that it has never failed to in the past, was

<math>\Pr(\mbox{sun will rise tomorrow}) = \frac{d+1}{d+2},</math>

where d is the number of times the sun has risen in the past. This result has been derided as absurd, and some authors have concluded that all applications of the Rule of Succession are absurd by extension. However, Laplace was fully aware of the absurdity of the result; immediately following the example, he wrote, "But this number [i.e., the probability that the sun will rise tomorrow] is far greater for him who, seeing in the totality of phenomena the principle regulating the days and seasons, realizes that nothing at the present moment can arrest the course of it."

Laplace strongly believed in causal determinism, which is expressed in the following citation:

"We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes."

This intellect is often referred to as Laplace's demon (in the same vein as Maxwell's demon). Note that this concept of identifying the hypothetical intellect described above by Laplace with whatever sort of demon does not come from Laplace, but from later theorists: Laplace rather saw himself as an atheist scientist that hoped that humanity would progress in a better scientific understanding of the world, which, if and when eventually completed, would still need a tremendous calculating power to compute it all in a single instant. While Laplace saw foremost practical problems for mankind to reach this ultimate stage of knowledge and computation, later interpretations of quantum mechanics, which were adopted by philosophers defending the existence of free will, also leave the theoretical possibility of such an "intellect" contested: for a further discussion of this issue, see also: determinism.


  • What we know is not much. What we do not know is immense.
  • For me, that's an unnecessary hypothesis. ("Je n'ai pas besoin de cette hypoth�se", as a reply to Napoleon, who had asked why he hadn't mentioned God in his book on astronomy)

Further reading

  • Simmons, J, The giant book of scientists -- The 100 greatest minds of all time, Sydney: The Book Company, (1996)

External links

de:Pierre-Simon Laplace es:Pierre Simon Laplace fr:Pierre-Simon Laplace is:Pierre-Simon Laplace it:Pierre Simon Laplace nl:Pierre-Simon Laplace ja:ピエール=シモン・ラプラス pl:Pierre Simon de Laplace sl:Pierre-Simon Laplace sv:Pierre Simon de Laplace zh:皮埃尔·西蒙·拉普拉斯[[Category:Members of the Acad�mie fran�aise|Laplace, Pierre-Simon]]

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