One of History's Great Polymaths Shows Us the Wisdom of Owning Our Mistakes

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Pierre-Simon Laplace lived from 1749 to 1827 and was busy the entire time. He wrote books, worked in politics, and figured out the secrets of the universe. One of those secrets he quietly withdrew from later copies of his books. Pity.

If you read the later copies of Pierre-Simon Laplace’s famous work, The System of the World, you’d miss something important. You’d probably never get back to reading earlier copies because Laplace was a tremendously prolific writer. He wrote about math, astronomy, physics, and politics. He collected and edited the work of past writers, and he added his own spin and interpretation. He even dabbled in philosophy, when he came up with a concept now known as Laplace’s Demon. If everything in the world was run by physical laws, Laplace argued, then any being could, with accurate enough laws and accurate enough information, see the entire history of the universe from start to finish. According to Laplace, “For such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.


The demon would have been amused with how things worked out for Laplace’s System of the World. In the book, Laplace had a theory based on the fact that light came in little bundles, like atoms. And, like atoms, as light went zooming by a massive body, gravity would affect it and slow it down. Laplace eventually came to imagine stars so big that they’d suck their own light back into themselves, as well as grabbing in any light nearby. He called these bodies “black stars.”

Through modern eyes we see that Laplace took the wrong route to get to the right place. Light can’t be slowed down by gravity, but its path can be bent. If a mass is big enough, and correctly placed, light’s path can be bent enough that it swirls into a black hole and cannot escape. Laplace didn’t have the benefit of being born after Einstein, so when the concept of light being a little bundle of mass went out of favor, he quietly scuttled his prescient theory. Only early editions of his book have it.


It’s worth noting that Laplace wasn’t the only person to come up with the idea. The man who (rightly) gets credit today for coming up with Dark Stars is a relatively unknown genius named John Michell, who we have covered on this site. Michell was a contemporary of Laplace, a brilliant and hardworking man, and came up with his own black hole idea wholly independently. And he didn’t delete his own work, so he gets all the credit.

[Source: Gravity’s Engines, by Caleb Scharf]

Image: Alex Morfin