Cover image for The man who flattened the earth : Maupertuis and the sciences in the enlightenment
The man who flattened the earth : Maupertuis and the sciences in the enlightenment
Terrall, Mary.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Chicago : The University of Chicago Press, [2002]

Physical Description:
ix, 408 pages : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm
Portrait of a man of science -- From Saint-Malo to Paris -- Mathematics and mechanics in the Paris Academy of Sciences -- The expedition to Lapland -- The polemical aftermath of the Lapland expedition -- Beyond Newton and on to Berlin -- Toward a science of living things -- The Berlin Academy of Sciences -- Teleology, cosmology, and least action -- Heredity and materialism -- The final years.
Electronic Access:
Table of contents

Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
Q143.M28 T47 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



Self-styled adventurer, literary wit, philosopher, and statesman of science, Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis (1698-1759) stood at the center of Enlightenment science and culture. Offering an elegant and accessible portrait of this remarkable man, Mary Terrall uses the story of Maupertuis's life, self-fashioning, and scientific works to explore what it meant to do science and to be a man of science in eighteenth-century Europe.

Beginning his scientific career as a mathematician in Paris, Maupertuis entered the public eye with a much-discussed expedition to Lapland, which confirmed Newton's calculation that the earth was flattened at the poles. He also made significant, and often intentionally controversial, contributions to physics, life science, navigation, astronomy, and metaphysics. Called to Berlin by Frederick the Great, Maupertuis moved to Prussia to preside over the Academy of Sciences there. Equally at home in salons, cafés, scientific academies, and royal courts, Maupertuis used his social connections and his printed works to enhance a carefully constructed reputation as both a man of letters and a man of science. His social and institutional affiliations, in turn, affected how Maupertuis formulated his ideas, how he presented them to his contemporaries, and the reactions they provoked.

Terrall not only illuminates the life and work of a colorful and important Enlightenment figure, but also uses his story to delve into many wider issues, including the development of scientific institutions, the impact of print culture on science, and the interactions of science and government. Smart and highly readable, Maupertuis will appeal to anyone interested in eighteenth-century science and culture.

"Terrall's work is scholarship in the best sense. Her explanations of arcane 18th-century French physics, mathematics, astronomy, and biology are among the most lucid available in any language."--Virginia Dawson , American Historical Review

Winner of the 2003 Pfizer Award from the History of Science Society

Author Notes

Mary Terrall is an assistant professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Reviews 1

Choice Review

Terrall (history, Univ. of California, Los Angeles), a prize-winning author (1994 Derek Price/Rod Webster Prize and 1998 History of Women in Science Prize, both from the History of Science Society), has written a rich and scholarly biography of French mathematician Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis (1698-1759). Terrall tells a fascinating and influential life story and goes further by describing how ideas and people gained acceptance into scientific, literary, and royal court cultures during the Enlightenment. Maupertuis, through his mathematics and his expedition to Lapland, where he proved the earth was flattened at the poles, was able to convince the Paris Academy of Sciences that Newton's theories described the world better than did the theories of Descartes and Leibniz. The principle of least action and empirical investigations on heredity and the generation of organisms were other major scientific works produced by Maupertuis. He excelled at writing popular accounts of his discoveries for the literary and royal court cultures of France. Maupertuis spent his last 15 years reestablishing and then administrating the Berlin Academy of Sciences. Another English-language biography of this polymath is Maupertuis: An Intellectual Biography, by David Beeson (1992). Summing Up: Recommended. General readers; lower-division undergraduates through faculty. M. Mounts Dartmouth College

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
List of Abbreviations
A Note on Translations
1 Portrait of a Man of Science
2 From Saint-Malo to Paris
3 Mathematics and Mechanics in the Paris Academy of Sciences
4 The Expedition to Lapland
5 The Polemical Aftermath of the Lapland Expedition
6 Beyond Newton and on to Berlin
7 Toward a Science of Living Things
8 The Berlin Academy of Sciences
9 Teleology, Cosmology, and Least Action
10 Heredity and Materialism
11 The Final Years