Keep out of Physics. Keep out of History

Some Notes on Leonhard Euler

January 22, 2017

He was born in 1707, the son of a reformed church pastor, and is generally regarded as one of the best mathematicians of any era. He was refused a position by the University of Basel, his own university, but was eventuially appointed to the Berlin Academy in 1741 by Frederick the Great of Prussia. Voltaire was also part of the Court, and would frequently make Euler the target of wit. This covered up Voltaire’s lack of mathematical ability. Euler produced about 380 papers in the Berlin Academy, despite losing the sight of first one eye, and then developing problems in the other eye from a cataract. Laplace put Euler in his rightful place by writing: “Read Euler, read Euler, he is the master of us all”. Voltaire also directed wit at Rouseau, by writing that “No one has expended so much eloquence in persuading people to be so stupid”. Euler was seen as a clodhopper skilled “only” in numbers and geometry, whereas members of the Court were supposed to be erudite in all areas of thought. Frederick eventually sacked him for failing to build a water device. So even Euler had his problems with bone headed establishment and people like Voltaire who should have known better.”


As usual, Ron, you have copied your information about the failed Sans Souci (how ironic a name) waterworks from secondary (not to say second-rate) sources, rather than consult the original documents. The groundless calumny which you have repeated, like some mindless crowd-pleasing Civilization-style TV-documentary maker, arose  solely from a letter which Frederick the Great wrote to Voltaire. The relevant passage reads, “Je voulus faire un jet d’eau en mon Jardin; le Ciclope Euler calcula l’éffort des roues, pour faire monter l’eau dans un bassin, d’ou elle devoit retomber par des canaux, afin de jaillir à Sans-Souci. Mon Moulin a été éxécuté géométriquement, et il n’a pu élever une goutte d’eau à Cinquante pas du Bassin. Vanité des Vanités ! Vanité de la géométrie.” Here, Frederick derides ‘le Ciclope Euler’ who had indeed lost an eye in 1735,  even though it was the figuratively short-sighted and financially mean king who had no understanding of the nature of the problem. In his statement about not being able to raise “une goutte d’eau” to the reservoir, he was in fact parroting back the very warning that Euler had given to him and had turned it into a ‘cheap shot’ aimed at mathematics. Some mischief-making ‘science writers’ have even taken the last sentence out-of-context, writing “Il n’a pu… ” instead of “et il n’a pu…” thus making the reader think “Il” refers to Euler rather than to “Moulin”; the latter was a windmill [sic] which was to raise the water to a reservoir. Several engineers had been bungling the project for many years before Euler arrived on the scene. He calculated the pressures involved with great accuracy, but pointed out that he could not predict how the pipe materials would perform. The engineers had been using metal-bound wooden pipes. Euler said that they should experiment with lead pipes instead. His advice was ignored. When Malpertuis, the king’s chief ‘savant’ died, the king gave the job to smooth-talking d’Alembert. The latter refused the post and recommended Euler. The king did not like that and instead became his own chief savant; an idiot savant, we wager. That is how one does history Ron; one cannot trust Wiki. Oh, would you like a translation of the archaic French?


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