Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/Joseph-Antoine Plateau
Belgian physicist, b. at Brussels, 14 Oct., 1801; d. at Ghent, 15 Sept., 1883. His father, a flower-painter, wished him to be an artist, and, after his elementary studies, he was sent to the Académie de Dessein at Brussels. Left an orphan at fourteen, Joseph Plateau became the ward of a maternal uncle, an advocate, who intended him to study law. His intermediate studies were made at the Athénée Royal at Brussels, and in 1822 he entered the University of Liège, being enrolled as a student both of philosophy and letters and of science. He graduated doctor of physical and mathematical sciences, 3 June, 1829. After a brief period of teaching in the Athenee Royal at Liège, he was appointed, in 1835, professor of experimental physics in the University of Ghent. His thesis for the doctorate had been "On certain properties of the impressions produced by light upon the organ of sight". This line of research he followed for many years, studying successively the persistence of luminous impressions on the retina, accidental colours, irradiation, the contrast of colours, coloured shadows, etc. Many of the results obtained by him are still classical. In the course of these researches he once kept his naked eye fixed on the sun for twenty-five seconds, and this imprudence brought on a choroid inflammation which, in 1843, resulted in total blindness. Being obliged to give up teaching, he nevertheless continued his experimental work with admirable courage and marvellous success, helped by his elder son, Félix Plateau, the naturalist, his son-in-law, Van der Mensbruyghe, the physicist (1835-1911), and some friends and colleagues in the University of Ghent. To this period belong almost all his famous researches on the statics of liquids freed from pressure, on surface tension, and on the properties of thin liquid plates. After 1844 Joseph Plateau had no laboratory but his study in his own modest home. He himself planned all the experiments and arranged all the details in advance. His assistants would announce in a loud voice everything they were doing, all that they observed, and the results of each process. Joseph Plateau would then dictate the notes and, later on, the text of the memoirs for publication. In this way he worked until he was upwards of eighty. Joseph Plateau was a sincere Christian, faithful to all the duties of a pratical Catholic. He was a member of the Royal Academy of Belgium, punctually attending all its meetings, a correspondent of the Institute of France, and a member of most of the academies and learned societies of Europe. A complete list of Plateau's works with sources indicated will be found in Van der Mensbruyghe, "Notice sur J. A. F. Plateau" (extract from the Annuaire de l'académie royale de Belgique for 1885). His papers on visual phenomena have not been published separately: they are scattered through Mémoires and Bulletins of the Académie Royale of Belgium. His researches on liquids have been corrected, arranged, and published by the author in G. Plateau, "Statique expérimentale et theorique des liquides soumise aux seules forces moleculaires" (2 vols., Paris-London, 1873). The best and most complete study of his scientific work is that of Joseph Delsaulx, S.J., published under the title of "Les travaux scientifiques de Joseph Plateau" in the "Revue des questions scientifiques" (1st series, XV, 114-58, 518-77; XVI, 383-437).