Listening to the BBC’s In Our Time on French mathematician and polymath Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827), I rather enjoyed Napoleon’s quote on his old teacher – whom he briefly made Minister of the Interior for all of six weeks.
Wikipedia is fulsome in its praise of Laplace:
His work was important to the development of engineering, mathematics, statistics, physics, astronomy, and philosophy. Laplace is remembered as one of the greatest scientists of all time. Sometimes referred to as the French Newton he has been described as possessing a phenomenal natural mathematical faculty superior to that of any of his contemporaries. He was Napoleon’s examiner when Napoleon attended the École Militaire in Paris in 1784.
Napoleon clearly rated him, but soon realised not even the finest minds are good for everything…
“Geometrician of the first rank, Laplace was not long in showing himself a worse than average administrator; from his first actions in office we recognized our mistake. Laplace did not consider any question from the right angle: he sought subtleties everywhere, conceived only problems.”
But the killer line is this:
Il portait enfin l’esprit des ‘infiniment petits’ jusque dans l’administration.
In the end, he brought the spirit of the ‘infinitely small’ to matters administrative.
Poor old Laplace; but having worked in universities I know exactly how Napoleon felt… Allez!