1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Arago, Dominique François Jean
ARAGO, DOMINIQUE FRANÇOIS JEAN (1786–1853), French physicist, was born on the 26th of February 1786, at Estagel, a small village near Perpignan, in the department of the eastern Pyrenees. He was the eldest of four brothers. Jean (1788–1836) emigrated to America and became a general in the Mexican army. Jacques Étienne Victor (1799–1855) took part in L. C. de S. de Freycinet’s exploring voyage in the “Uranie” from 1817 to 1821, and on his return to France devoted himself to journalism and the drama. The fourth brother, Étienne Vincent (1802–1892), is said to have collaborated with H. de Balzac in the Héritière de Birague, and from 1822 to 1847 wrote a great number of light dramatic pieces, mostly in collaboration. A strong republican, he was obliged to leave France in 1849, but returned after the amnesty of 1859. In 1879 he was nominated director of the Luxembourg museum.
Showing decided military tastes François Arago was sent to the municipal college of Perpignan, where he began to study mathematics in preparation for the entrance examination of the polytechnic school. Within two years and a half he had mastered all the subjects prescribed for examination, and a great deal more, and, on going up for examination at Toulouse, he astounded his examiner by his knowledge of Lagrange. Towards the close of 1803 he entered the polytechnic school, with the artillery service as the aim of his ambition, and in 1804, through the advice and recommendation of S. D. Poisson, he received the appointment of secretary to the Observatory of Paris. He now became acquainted with Laplace, and through his influence was commissioned, with J. B. Biot, to complete the meridional measurements which had been begun by J .B. J. Delambre, and interrupted since the death of P. F. A. Méchain (1744–1804). The two left Paris in 1806 and began operations among the mountains of Spain, but Biot returned to Paris after they had determined the latitude of Formentera, the southernmost point to which they were to carry the survey, leaving Arago to make the geodetical connexion of Majorca with Ivica and with Formentera.
The adventures and difficulties of the latter were now only beginning. The political ferment caused by the entrance of the French into Spain extended to these islands, and the ignorant populace began to suspect that Arago’s movements and his blazing fires on the top of Mount Galatzo were telegraphic signals to the invading army. Ultimately they became so infuriated that he was obliged to cause himself to be incarcerated in the fortress of Belver in June 1808. On the 28th of July he managed to escape from the island in a fishing-boat, and after an adventurous voyage he reached Algiers on the 3rd of August. Thence he procured a passage in a vessel bound for Marseilles, but on the 16th of August, just as the vessel was nearing Marseilles, it fell into the hands of a Spanish corsair. With the rest of the crew, Arago was taken to Rosas, and imprisoned first in a windmill, and afterwards in the fortress of that seaport, until the town fell into the hands of the French, when the prisoners were transferred to Palamos. After fully three months’ imprisonment they were released on the demand of the dey of Algiers, and again set sail for Marseilles on the 28th of November, but when within sight of their port they were driven back by a northerly wind to Bougie on the coast of Africa. Transport to Algiers by sea from this place would have occasioned a weary stay of three months; Arago, therefore, set out for it by land under conduct of a Mahommedan priest, and reached it on Christmas day. After six months’ stay in Algiers he once again, on the 21st of June 1809, set sail for Marseilles, where he had to undergo a monotonous and inhospitable quarantine in the lazaretto, before his difficulties were over. The first letter he received, while in the lazaretto, was from A. von Humboldt; and this was the origin of a connexion which, in Arago’s words, “lasted over forty years without a single cloud ever having troubled it.”
Through all these vicissitudes Arago had succeeded in preserving the records of his survey; and his first act on his return home was to deposit them in the Bureau des Longitudes at Paris. As a reward for his adventurous conduct in the cause of science, he was in September 1809 elected a member of the Academy of Sciences, in room of J. B. L. Lalande, at the remarkably early age of twenty-three, and before the close of the same year he was chosen by the council of the polytechnic school to succeed G. Monge in the chair of analytical geometry. About the same time he was named by the emperor one of the astronomers of the Royal Observatory, which was accordingly his residence till his death, and it was in this capacity that he delivered his remarkably successful series of popular lectures on astronomy, which were continued from 1812 to 1845.
In 1816, along with Gay-Lussac, he started the Annales de chimie et de physique, and in 1818 or 1819 he proceeded along with Biot to execute geodetic operations on the coasts of France, England and Scotland. They measured the length of the seconds-pendulum at Leith, and in Unst, one of the Shetland isles, the results of the observations being published in 1821, along with those made in Spain. Arago was elected a member of the Board of Longitude immediately afterwards, and contributed to each of its Annuals, for about twenty-two years, important scientific notices on astronomy and meteorology and occasionally on civil engineering, as well as interesting memoirs of members of the Academy.
In 1830, Arago, who always professed liberal opinions of the extreme republican type, was elected a member of the chamber of deputies for the Lower Seine, and he employed his splendid gifts of eloquence and scientific knowledge in all questions connected with public education, the rewards of inventors, and the encouragement of the mechanical and practical sciences. Many of the most creditable national enterprises, dating from this period, are due to his advocacy—such as the reward to L. J. M. Daguerre for the invention of photography, the grant for the publication of the works of P. Fermat and Laplace, the acquisition of the museum of Cluny, the development of railways and electric telegraphs, the improvement of the navigation of the Seine, and the boring of the artesian wells at Grenelle.
In the year 1830 also he was appointed director of the Observatory, and as a member of the chamber of deputies he was able to obtain grants of money for rebuilding it in part, and for the addition of magnificent instruments. In the same year, too, he was chosen perpetual secretary of the Academy of Sciences, in room of J. B. J. Fourier. Arago threw his whole soul into its service, and by his faculty of making friends he gained at once for it and for himself a world-wide reputation. As perpetual secretary it fell to him to pronounce historical éloges on deceased members; and for this duty his rapidity and facility of thought, his happy piquancy of style, and his extensive knowledge peculiarly adapted him.
In 1834 he again visited England, to attend the meeting of the British Association at Edinburgh. From this time till 1848 he led a life of comparative quiet—not the quiet of inactivity, however, for his incessant labours within the Academy and the Observatory produced a multitude of contributions to all departments of physical science,—but on the fall of Louis Philippe he left his laboratory to join in forming the provisional government. He was entrusted with the discharge of two important functions, that had never before been united in one person, viz. the ministry of war and of marine; and in the latter capacity he effected some salutary reforms, such as the improvement of rations in the navy and the abolition of flogging. He also abolished political oaths of all kinds, and, against an array of moneyed interests, succeeded in procuring the abolition of negro slavery in the French colonies.
In the beginning of May 1852, when the government of Louis Napoleon required an oath of allegiance from all its functionaries, Arago peremptorily refused, and sent in his resignation of his post as astronomer at the Bureau des Longitudes. This, however, the prince president, to his credit, declined to accept, and made “an exception in favour of a savant whose works had thrown lustre on France, and whose existence his government would regret to embitter.” But the tenure of office thus granted did not prove of long duration. Arago was now on his death-bed, under a complication of diseases, induced, no doubt, by the hardships and labours of his earlier years. In the summer of 1853 he was advised by his physicians to try the effect of his native air, and he accordingly set out for the eastern Pyrenees. But the change was unavailing, and after a lingering illness, in which he suffered first from diabetes, then from Bright’s disease, complicated by dropsy, he died in Paris on the 2nd of October 1853.
Arago’s fame as an experimenter and discoverer rests mainly on his contributions to magnetism and still more to optics. He found that a magnetic needle, made to oscillate over nonferruginous surfaces, such as water, glass, copper, &c., falls more rapidly in the extent of its oscillations according as it is more or less approached to the surface. This discovery, which gained him the Copley medal of the Royal Society in 1825, was followed by another, that a rotating plate of copper tends to communicate its motion to a magnetic needle suspended over it (“magnetism of rotation”). Arago is also fairly entitled to be regarded as having proved the long-suspected connexion between the aurora borealis and the variations of the magnetic elements.
In optics we owe to him not only important optical discoveries of his own, but the credit of stimulating the genius of A. J. Fresnel, with whose history, as well as with that of E. L. Malus and of Thomas Young, this part of his life is closely interwoven. Shortly after the beginning of the 19th century the labours of these three philosophers were shaping the modern doctrine of the undulatory theory of light. Fresnel’s arguments in favour of that theory found little favour with Laplace, Poisson and Biot, the champions of the emission theory; but they were ardently espoused by Humboldt and by Arago, who had been appointed by the Academy to report on the paper. This was the foundation of an intimate friendship between Arago and Fresnel, and of a determination to carry on together further researches in this subject, which led to the enunciation of the fundamental laws of the polarization of light known by their names (see Polarization). As a result of this work Arago constructed a polariscope, which he used for some interesting observations on the polarization of the light of the sky. To him is also due the discovery of the power of rotatory polarization exhibited by quartz, and last of all, among his many contributions to the support of the undulatory hypothesis, comes the experimentum crucis which he proposed to carry out for comparing directly the velocity of light in air and in water or glass. On the emission theory the velocity should be accelerated by an increase of density in the medium; on the wave theory, it should be retarded. In 1838 he communicated to the Academy the details of his apparatus, which utilized the revolving mirrors employed by Sir C. Wheatstone in 1835 for measuring the velocity of the electric discharge; but owing to the great care required in the carrying out of the project, and to the interruption to his labours caused by the revolution of 1848, it was the spring of 1850 before he was ready to put his idea to the test; and then his eyesight suddenly gave way. Before his death, however, the retardation of light in denser media was demonstrated by the experiments of H. L. Fizeau and J. B. L. Foucault, which, with improvements in detail, were based on the plan proposed by him.