1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Lagrange, Joseph Louis
LAGRANGE, JOSEPH LOUIS (1736–1813), French mathematician, was born at Turin, on the 25th of January 1736. He was of French extraction, his great grandfather, a cavalry captain, having passed from the service of France to that of Sardinia, and settled in Turin under Emmanuel II. His father, Joseph Louis Lagrange, married Maria Theresa Gros, only daughter of a rich physician at Cambiano, and had by her eleven children, of whom only the eldest (the subject of this notice) and the youngest survived infancy. His emoluments as treasurer at war, together with his wife’s fortune, provided him with ample means, which he lost by rash speculations, a circumstance regarded by his son as the prelude to his own good fortune; for had he been rich, he used to say, he might never have known mathematics.
The genius of Lagrange did not at once take its true bent. His earliest tastes were literary rather than scientific, and he learned the rudiments of geometry during his first year at the college of Turin, without difficulty, but without distinction. The perusal of a tract by Halley (Phil. Trans. xviii. 960) roused his enthusiasm for the analytical method, of which he was destined to develop the utmost capabilities. He now entered, unaided save by his own unerring tact and vivid apprehension, upon a course of study which, in two years, placed him on a level with the greatest of his contemporaries. At the age of nineteen he communicated to Leonhard Euler his idea of a general method of dealing with “isoperimetrical” problems, known later as the Calculus of Variations. It was eagerly welcomed by the Berlin mathematician, who had the generosity to withhold from publication his own further researches on the subject, until his youthful correspondent should have had time to complete and opportunity to claim the invention. This prosperous opening gave the key-note to Lagrange’s career. Appointed, in 1754, professor of geometry in the royal school of artillery, he formed with some of his pupils—for the most part his seniors—friendships based on community of scientific ardour. With the aid of the marquis de Saluces and the anatomist G. F. Cigna, he founded in 1758 a society which became the Turin Academy of Sciences. The first volume of its memoirs, published in the following year, contained a paper by Lagrange entitled Recherches sur la nature et la propagation du son, in which the power of his analysis and his address in its application were equally conspicuous. He made his first appearance in public as the critic of Newton, and the arbiter between d’Alembert and Euler. By considering only the particles of air found in a right line, he reduced the problem of the propagation of sound to the solution of the same partial differential equations that include the motions of vibrating strings, and demonstrated the insufficiency of the methods employed by both his great contemporaries in dealing with the latter subject. He further treated in a masterly manner of echoes and the mixture of sounds, and explained the phenomenon of grave harmonics as due to the occurrence of beats so rapid as to generate a musical note. This was followed, in the second volume of the Miscellanea Taurinensia (1762) by his “Essai d’une nouvelle méthode pour déterminer les maxima et les minima des formules intégrales indéfinies,” together with the application of this important development of analysis to the solution of several dynamical problems, as well as to the demonstration of the mechanical principle of “least action.” The essential point in his advance on Euler’s mode of investigating curves of maximum or minimum consisted in his purely analytical conception of the subject. He not only freed it from all trammels of geometrical construction, but by the introduction of the symbol δ gave it the efficacy of a new calculus. He is thus justly regarded as the inventor of the “method of variations”—a name supplied by Euler in 1766.
By these performances Lagrange found himself, at the age of twenty-six, on the summit of European fame. Such a height had not been reached without cost. Intense application during early youth had weakened a constitution never robust, and led to accesses of feverish exaltation culminating, in the spring of 1761, in an attack of bilious hypochondria, which permanently lowered the tone of his nervous system. Rest and exercise, however, temporarily restored his health, and he gave proof of the undiminished vigour of his powers by carrying off, in 1764, the prize offered by the Paris Academy of Sciences for the best essay on the libration of the moon. His treatise was remarkable, not only as offering a satisfactory explanation of the coincidence between the lunar periods of rotation and revolution, but as containing the first employment of his radical formula of mechanics, obtained by combining with the principle of d’Alembert that of virtual velocities. His success encouraged the Academy to propose, in 1766, as a theme for competition, the hitherto unattempted theory of the Jovian system. The prize was again awarded to Lagrange; and he earned the same distinction with essays on the problem of three bodies in 1772, on the secular equation of the moon in 1774, and in 1778 on the theory of cometary perturbations.
He had in the meantime gratified a long felt desire by a visit to Paris, where he enjoyed the stimulating delight of conversing with such mathematicians as A. C. Clairault, d’Alembert, Condorcet and the Abbé Marie. Illness prevented him from visiting London. The post of director of the mathematical department of the Berlin Academy (of which he had been a member since 1759) becoming vacant by the removal of Euler to St Petersburg, the latter and d’Alembert united to recommend Lagrange as his successor. Euler’s eulogium was enhanced by his desire to quit Berlin, d’Alembert’s by his dread of a royal command to repair thither; and the result was that an invitation, conveying the wish of the “greatest king in Europe” to have the “greatest mathematician” at his court, was sent to Turin. On the 6th of November 1766, Lagrange was installed in his new position, with a salary of 6000 francs, ample leisure for scientific research, and royal favour sufficient to secure him respect without exciting envy. The national jealousy of foreigners, was at first a source of annoyance to him; but such prejudices were gradually disarmed by the inoffensiveness of his demeanour. We are told that the universal example of his colleagues, rather than any desire for female society, impelled him to matrimony; his choice being a lady of the Conti family, who, by his request, joined him at Berlin. Soon after marriage his wife was attacked by a lingering illness, to which she succumbed, Lagrange devoting all his time, and a considerable store of medical knowledge, to her care.
The long series of memoirs—some of them complete treatises of great moment in the history of science—communicated by Lagrange to the Berlin Academy between the years 1767 and 1787 were not the only fruits of his exile. His Mécanique analytique, in which his genius most fully displayed itself, was produced during the same period. This great work was the perfect realization of a design conceived by the author almost in boyhood, and clearly sketched in his first published essay. Its scope may be briefly described as the reduction of the theory of mechanics to certain general formulae, from the simple development of which should be derived the equations necessary for the solution of each separate problem. From the fundamental principle of virtual velocities, which thus acquired a new significance, Lagrange deduced, with the aid of the calculus of variations, the whole system of mechanical truths, by processes so elegant, lucid and harmonious as to constitute, in Sir William Hamilton’s words, “a kind of scientific poem.” This unification of method was one of matter also. By his mode of regarding a liquid as a material system characterized by the unshackled mobility of its minutest parts, the separation between the mechanics of matter in different forms of aggregation finally disappeared, and the fundamental equation of forces was for the first time extended to hydrostatics and hydrodynamics. Thus a universal science of matter and motion was derived, by an unbroken sequence of deduction, from one radical principle; and analytical mechanics assumed the clear and complete form of logical perfection which it now wears.
A publisher having with some difficulty been found, the book appeared at Paris in 1788 under the supervision of A. M. Legendre. But before that time Lagrange himself was on the spot. After the death of Frederick the Great, his presence was competed for by the courts of France, Spain and Naples, and a residence in Berlin having ceased to possess any attraction for him, he removed to Paris in 1787. Marie Antoinette warmly patronized him. He was lodged in the Louvre, received the grant of an income equal to that he had hitherto enjoyed, and, with the title of “veteran pensioner” in lieu of that of “foreign associate” (conferred in 1772), the right of voting at the deliberations of the Academy. In the midst of these distinctions, a profound melancholy seized upon him. His mathematical enthusiasm was for the time completely quenched, and during two years the printed volume of his Mécanique, which he had seen only in manuscript, lay unopened beside him. He relieved his dejection with miscellaneous studies, especially with that of chemistry, which, in the new form given to it by Lavoisier, he found “aisée comme l’algèbre.” The Revolution roused him once more to activity and cheerfulness. Curiosity impelled him to remain and watch the progress of such a novel phenomenon; but curiosity was changed into dismay as the terrific character of the phenomenon unfolded itself. He now bitterly regretted his temerity in braving the danger. “Tu l’as voulu” he would repeat self-reproachfully. Even from revolutionary tribunals, however, the name of Lagrange uniformly commanded respect. His pension was continued by the National Assembly, and he was partially indemnified for the depreciation of the currency by remunerative appointments. Nominated president of the Academical commission for the reform of weights and measures, his services were retained when its “purification” by the Jacobins removed his most distinguished colleagues. He again sat on the commission of 1799 for the construction of the metric system, and by his zealous advocacy of the decimal principle largely contributed to its adoption.
Meanwhile, on the 31st of May 1792 he married Mademoiselle Lemonnier, daughter of the astronomer of that name, a young and beautiful girl, whose devotion ignored disparity of years, and formed the one tie with life which Lagrange found it hard to break. He had no children by either marriage. Although specially exempted from the operation of the decree of October 1793, imposing banishment on foreign residents, he took alarm at the fate of J. S. Bailly and A. L. Lavoisier, and prepared to resume his former situation in Berlin. His design was frustrated by the establishment of and his official connexion with the École Normale, and the École Polytechnique. The former institution had an ephemeral existence; but amongst the benefits derived from the foundation of the École Polytechnique one of the greatest, it has been observed, was the restoration of Lagrange to mathematics. The remembrance of his teachings was long treasured by such of his auditors—amongst whom were J. B. J. Delambre and S. F. Lacroix—as were capable of appreciating them. In expounding the principles of the differential calculus, he started, as it were, from the level of his pupils, and ascended with them by almost insensible gradations from elementary to abstruse conceptions. He seemed, not a professor amongst students, but a learner amongst learners; pauses for thought alternated with luminous exposition; invention accompanied demonstration; and thus originated his Théorie des fonctions analytiques (Paris, 1797). The leading idea of this work was contained in a paper published in the Berlin Memoirs for 1772. Its object was the elimination of the, to some minds, unsatisfactory conception of the infinite from the metaphysics of the higher mathematics, and the substitution for the differential and integral calculus of an analogous method depending wholly on the serial development of algebraical functions. By means of this “calculus of derived functions” Lagrange hoped to give to the solution of all analytical problems the utmost “rigour of the demonstrations of the ancients”; but it cannot be said that the attempt was successful. The validity of his fundamental position was impaired by the absence of a well-constituted theory of series; the notation employed was inconvenient, and was abandoned by its inventor in the second edition of his Mécanique; while his scruples as to the admission into analytical investigations of the idea of limits or vanishing ratios have long since been laid aside as idle. Nowhere, however, were the keenness and clearness of his intellect more conspicuous than in this brilliant effort, which, if it failed in its immediate object, was highly effective in secondary results. His purely abstract mode of regarding functions, apart from any mechanical or geometrical considerations, led the way to a new and sharply characterized development of the higher analysis in the hands of A. Cauchy, C. G. Jacobi, and others. The Théorie des fonctions is divided into three parts, of which the first explains the general doctrine of functions, the second deals with its application to geometry, and the third with its bearings on mechanics.
On the establishment of the Institute, Lagrange was placed at the head of the section of geometry; he was one of the first members of the Bureau des Longitudes; and his name appeared in 1791 on the list of foreign members of the Royal Society. On the annexation of Piedmont to France in 1796, a touching compliment was paid to him in the person of his aged father. By direction of Talleyrand, then minister for foreign affairs, the French commissary repaired in state to the old man’s residence in Turin, to congratulate him on the merits of his son, whom they declared “to have done honour to mankind by his genius, and whom Piedmont was proud to have produced, and France to possess.” Bonaparte, who styled him “la haute pyramide des sciences mathématiques,” loaded him with personal favours and official distinctions. He became a senator, a count of the empire, a grand officer of the legion of honour, and just before his death received the grand cross of the order of réunion.
The preparation of a new edition of his Mécanique exhausted his already falling powers. Frequent fainting fits gave presage of a speedy end, and on the 8th of April 1813 he had a final interview with his friends B. Lacépède, G. Monge and J. A. Chaptal. He spoke with the utmost calm of his approaching death; “c’est une dernière fonction,” he said, “qui n’est ni pénible ni désagréable.” He nevertheless looked forward to a future meeting, when he promised to complete the autobiographical details which weakness obliged him to interrupt. They remained untold, for he died two days later on the 10th of April, and was buried in the Pantheon, the funeral oration being pronounced by Laplace and Lacépède.
His share in the gigantic task of verifying the Newtonian theory would alone suffice to immortalize his name. His co-operation was indeed more indispensable than at first sight appears. Much as was done by him, what was done through him was still more important. Some of his brilliant rival’s most conspicuous discoveries were implicitly contained in his writings, and wanted but one step for completion. But that one step, from the abstract to the concrete, was precisely that which the character of Lagrange’s mind indisposed him to make. As notable instances may be mentioned Laplace’s discoveries relating to the velocity of sound and the secular acceleration of the moon, both of which were led close up to by Lagrange’s analytical demonstrations. In the Berlin Memoirs for 1778 and 1783 Lagrange gave the first direct and theoretically perfect method of determining cometary orbits. It has not indeed proved practically available; but his system of calculating cometary perturbations by means of “mechanical quadratures” has formed the starting-point of all subsequent researches on the subject. His determination of maximum and minimum values for the slowly varying planetary eccentricities was the earliest attempt to deal with the problem. Without a more accurate knowledge of the masses of the planets than was then possessed a satisfactory solution was impossible; but the upper limits assigned by him agreed closely with those obtained later by U. J. J. Leverrier. As a mathematical writer Lagrange has perhaps never been surpassed. His treatises are not only storehouses of ingenious methods, but models of symmetrical form. The clearness, elegance and originality of his mode of presentation give lucidity to what is obscure, novelty to what is familiar, and simplicity to what is abstruse. His genius was one of generalization and abstraction; and the aspirations of the time towards unity and perfection received, by his serene labours, an embodiment denied to them in the troubled world of politics.Bibliography.—Lagrange’s numerous scattered memoirs have been collected and published in seven 4to volumes, under the title
- Œuvres, i. 15.
- Méc. An., Advertisement to 1st ed.
- E. Dühring, Kritische Gesch. der Mechanik, 220, 367; Lagrange, Méc. An. i. 166-172, 3rd ed.
- Notice by J. Delambre, Œuvres de Lagrange, i. p. xlii.
- Œuvres, iii. 441.
- Théorie des fonctions, p. 6.
- H. Suter, Geschichte der math. Wiss. ii. 222-223.
- Œuvres, vi. 771.
- Œuvres, v. 211 seq.
- Grant, History of Physical Astronomy, p. 117.