Great geophysicists #13: Poisson

Siméon Denis Poisson was born in Pithiviers, France, on 21 June 1781. While still a teenager, Poisson entered the prestigious École Polytechnique in Paris, and published his first papers in 1800. He was immediately befriended — or adopted, really — by Lagrange and Laplace. So it's safe to say that he got off to a pretty good start as a mathematician. The meteoric trajectory continued throughout his career, as Poisson received more or less every honour a French scientist could accumulate. Along with Laplace and Lagrange — as well as Fresnel, Coulomb, Lamé, and Fourier — his is one of the 72 names on the Eiffel Tower.

Wrong Poisson

In the first few decades following the French Revolution, which ended in 1799, France enjoyed a golden age of science. The Société d’Acrueil was a regular meeting of savants, hosted by Laplace and the chemist Claude Louis Berthollet, and dedicated to the exposition of physical phenomena. The group worked on problems like the behaviour of gases, the physics of sound and light, and the mechanics of deformable materials. Using Newton's then 120-year-old law of gravitation as an analogy, the prevailing school of thought accounted for all physical phenomena in terms of forces acting between particles. 

Poisson was not flawless. As one of the members of this intellectual inner circle, Poisson was devoted to the corpuscular theory of light. Indeed, he dismissed the wave theory of light completely, until proven wrong by Thomas Young and, most conspicuously, Augustin-Jean Fresnel. Even Poisson's ratio, the eponymous elastic modulus, wasn't the result of his dogged search for truth, but instead represents a controversy that drove the development of the three-dimensional theory of elasticity. More on this next time.

The workaholic

Although he did make time for his wife and four children — but only after 6 pm — Poisson apparently had little time for much besides mathematics. His catchphrase was

Life is only good for two things: doing mathematics and teaching it.

In the summer of 1838, he learned he had a form of tuberculosis. According to James (2002), he was unable to take time away from work for long enough to recuperate. Eventually, insisting on conducting the final exams at the Polytechnique for the 23rd year in a row, he took on more than he could handle. He died on 20 April 1840. 


Grattan-Guinness, I. (1990). Convolutions in French Mathematics, 1800-1840: From the Calculus and Mechanics to Mathematical Analysis and Mathematical Physics. Vol.1: The Setting. Springer Science & Business Media. 549 pages.

Ioan James, I (2002). Remarkable Mathematicians: From Euler to Von Neumann. Cambridge University Press, 433 pages.

The University of St Andrews MacTutor archive article on Poisson.