Monday, 30 September 2013

Charles the Obscure, The one you never heard of, but should have.

My good and generous friend, Dave Renfro, sometimes finds time in his busy writing and research schedule to send me copies of some of the old documents he's working through.  Recently a collection from him included a 1979 Isis article by J. B. Gough.
One in particular, which I opened only weeks after the anniversary of the death of the unfortunate Jacques Charles, called the Geometer in his lifetime to avoid confusing him with Charles the Balloonist, and sometimes Charles the inventor, who is J. A. C Charles, and the namesake for the chemistry law that is sometimes, probably without merit, called Charles' Law.  Unfortunately, the point of Gough's article is that they did become confused, often due to lack of effort or interest on the part of historical writers, to the point that now you can find little or nothing about the "geometer" and much of what you find about the more famous Charles is, in fact, a mis-credit for the work of Charles the Geometer. 
I would have assumed that articles like the one by Gough in 1979, and another by the famous science historial Roger Hahn a few years later would have set the record straight, but in fact as I scanned a couple of biographies on the internet they still contain the residue of the confusion.
One of the first points of confusion is that you may see the date for the famous Charles as 1785.  This is off by almost a full decade, and the actual date of the induction of Charles the Geometer.   The famous Charles would be inducted in 1795, almost four years after the other Charles had gone to an early grave.
A second, and even more common error is that you will often still see biographies of the famous Charles that list him as a mathematician, and sometimes add something like, "most of his papers were in mathematics."    Charles, the famous, it seems, was NOT a mathematician, and wrote almost nothing, including nothing about mathematics, and only the sketchiest outline of the law which, due to the graciousness of more capable scientists (you can read the name Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac here) would eventually bear his name.  J. B. Gough goes so far in his article in Isis to declare that this Charles was "nearly a mathematical illiterate."  He points out that of the eight articles credited to J. A. C Charles by Poggendorf, seven were actually by the more obscure (and more mathematical) Charles.
Gay-Lussac, in his published paper about the law credits Charles with this statement (English translation) "Before going further, I must jump ahead. Although I had recognized on many occasions that the gases oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen, carbonic acid, and atmospheric air all expand identically from 0° to 80°, citizen Charles had noticed the same property in these gases 15 years ago; however, since he never published his results, it is only by great luck that I knew it. He had also sought to determine the expansion of water-soluble gas, and he had found for each a particular dilation different from that of other gases. In this respect, my experiments differ strongly from his".
Gough points as far back as 1870 with evidence to the ongoing confusion.  A donation of the physics lectures of the more famous Charles to the Institute de France prompted a notice in Comptes Rendes with a brief description of Charles life and career on February 7 of 1870.  Shortly after the publication a letter to the Perpetual Secretary questioned if the article had not confused Charles the balloonist with the geometer.  A followup with a brief description of the lifes of both men was given in Comptes Rendes on March 7 of the same year.

So what of the mathematical Charles, who has so sadly been overlooked for several hundred years?  It seems that he was born around 1752 in Cluny, France in the Burgendy region of France.  He seems to have attempted to gain entry to the Paris Academy of Science, to which both Charleses would eventually belong, at the ripe age of about 18 while still living in Cluny.  His article, on a problem in Algebra, probably reflecting his youth, was rejected by the academy as being too elementary.  Two years later, he would submit a second paper two years later, "sur le dynamique" impressed the judges who infered that the author must be aware of Euler's differential calculus.  When it was read to the full meeting of the  academy, Lavoisier's minutes of the meeting list Charles as a Professor of Mathematics at the school at Nanterre, most probably referring to a popular academy in that suburb of Paris that trained young Nobles who were intending to proceed to Engineering colleges.
 Over the period from 1779 to 1785, Charles continued to submit articles to the Academy.  In all he submitted seven articles all of which were deemed appropriate for publication.  After the seventh, Condercet, who had reviewed the paper for the Academy, pointed out that this, and any of the previous six, certainly merited his admission to the Academy.  His major obstacle seems to have been the opposition to his appointment by Laplace, who was motivated more by his rivalry with Charles' sponsor, Bossut.  Finally a vote on May 11, 1785 (this date is often given as May 12, I use Hahn's date as few have better records to the history of the Paris Academy) secured Charles his membership.
Charles, through his association with Bossut, had already obtained the position as the Chair of Hydrolics, which brought with it, admission to the Paris Academy of Architecture, which made Charles a duel academician.
Somewhere around 1789 Charles was onset with a paralysis which greatly affected his ability to write.  It is said that he had, for a short while,  to request another member to sign him in at meetings.  He did manage to learn to write with his other hand, but never with full control.  A few years later, in 1791, he died apparently from the same paralytic problem.  Only sketchy records exist of his death and burial due to the confusion created by events related to the revolution.  It appears he died on (or near) August 20, 1791 and it is reported that he was buried at Saint-Germain-l'Auxilles on the 22nd of the same month.  A memorial service was held at the Oratoire on Dec 29,1971.  Due to the events of the revolution, no M'emoires of the Paris Academy were produced that year, and hence no obituary for members who died.

I am still trying to learn more about the actual writings of Jacques Charles, the Geometer and would love to hear from those who have greater knowledge on this subject, and the man himself, to share.

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