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October 04, 2019 Friday 10:53:35 AM IST

Born to be a Unicorn: Saga of d’Alembert

Creative Living

Abandoned by own mother just a few days after birth; rejected by the biological father forever; growing up with a non-appreciative foster mother; cheated by the first and the only love on the eve of one’s life: irrespective of all thesesetbacks, to keep one’s creative juice flowing lifelong, is a magical accomplishment.Jean-Baptiste le Rondd'Alembert (1717-1783), who started his life as an orphaned child of his highly reputed parents in Paris, carved for himself a unique place in the history of Western mathematics and science. An uncompromising life of 65 years, paying least attention to criticsandadmirers alike, a life of single-minded search for unifying principles of science and philosophy!Yes, d’Alembert was born to be a unicorn among the herd of horses! He made brave propositions that added oil to the lamp of Enlightenmentof the West andbrought out some truly original contributionstowards mathematics, mechanics, physics and philosophy.

 

Path of the unicorn

D'Alembert was the illegitimate son of the writer Claudine Guérin de Tencin and Louis-Camus Destouches, an artillery officer in Paris. Days after his birth, his unwed mother left d’Alemberton the steps of the Church of Saint-Jean-le-Rondin Paris, in an apparent effort to get rid of him. However, the new-born was noticed by the church authorities, who handed him over to an orphanage. According to the custom of the day, d’Alembert was baptizedand was named after the patron saint of the church, Jean-le-Rond. As the biological mother did not surface, in the course of time he was given in adoption toMme Rousseau, wife of a glass-worker, whom d’Alembert considered as his mother lifelong. Though d’Alembert was never acknowledged by his biological father as own child, he was benevolent enough to secretly educate him in a private school till his death in 1726. D’Alembert was just nine years old then!Destouches also leftan annuity of 1200 livresto d’Alembertas per his last will. As the child turned 12, d’Alembert was put into the Jansenist Collège des Quatre Nations, a theological school, which taught mathematics and literature additionally. Here he adopted the name, Jean d'Alembert, which remained with him for the rest of his life.


 

D’Alembert soon developed a deep dislike towards theology and realized thatit was not his subject. Instead, he started his tryst with mathematics, which eventually became the passionof his life.  After graduating in Theology in 1735, d’Alembertwished to make a career in law. In 1738, hegot qualified as an advocate, but soon he realized that he was a failure in practising law. In 1739, he wanted to make a shift in his career path and joined medicine, only to realize that medicine was even worse for him.During all these flip-flops, d’Alembertkept coming back to mathematics, his most favorite subject, which he taught himself during his leisure time. Finally, his passion won over his career consideration. D’Alembert became a mathematician. Mme Rousseau, his foster mother,could not understand the spirit of innovation moving within d’Alembert, and kept cursing him and complaining over his inadequacies. D’Alembertput up with her till his fifties and remained an eligible bachelor.

 

Most part of his life, d’Alemertlived awayfrom the public attention. Hedid not even bother to travel out of the country. The only trip he made was to Germany,that too, to visit the court of Frederick the Great of Germany, who invited him to join Berlin Academy.


 

In 1746, d’Alembert was introduced to MmeGeoffrin, the founder of a salon, the communion of intellectuals of the day in Paris. MmeGeoffrin was rich, imperious, unintellectual but generous. Association with her brought d’Alembert to the limelight. He became popular and soon became the sought aftervisitor to any salon. He developed a habit of working during the morning hours and spending his evenings in the salons. His favorite salon included one that was organized by Julie de Lespinasse.

 

D’Alembert, who was just like the mythical unicorn that walked so softly that its hooves made no sound, was captivatedby the charm of MmeLespinasse. He fell in love with her in his fifties!His serious illness in 1765 forced him to leave his foster mother’s place to live with his love, who nursed him till her death in 1776. Only after the death of MmeLespinasse,he discovered the extent of the passionate involvement shehad with other men. He felt deeply betrayed by her and ever since lived a life of withdrawal till his death in 1783. A life that began in total abandonment also ended in the same manner!


 

A Sin-you unicorn

 

D’Alebert was short in stature,but had an expressive face. He had a high-pitched voice, and a talent for mimicry. He was known for his wit, gaiety, and gift for conversation. He was rustic, bold, honest, frank and quarrelsome in his approach. He developed deep dislike towards sycophants and bores. This attitude earned him more enemies than friends.He loved controversies - just like a lightning rod that attracted sparks from all sides. He argued with almost everyone around him. He brought pugnacity into his discussions and fought his case with vigour. His radical stubbornness also had negative effects. Somecritical inaccuracies of his own theories remained hidden tohim!


 

D'Alembert was opposed to dogmatic authorities and institutions. He considered Mathematics as the ideal form of knowledge. He firmly believed that truth could be derived from a single, ultimate, yet-to-be-discovered, mathematical principle. He also considered the laws of physics as the fundamental principles of the world.Though hewas not a traveller, he kept updating himself with the developments in science worldwide. He closely followed the scientific revolution spearheaded by the British scientist Isaac Newton, who based his theories on strong experimental basis. Even as these theories went against the propositions of René Descartes, his countryman, who believed in the power of human intellect to expose the whole truth, d’Alembert sympathized with Newtonian physics.

 

In his characteristic unicorn style, d’Alembert brought these apparently diverging approaches to physics and reconciled them through his works.In all these, d’Alembert emulated the features of the Sin-you unicorn of the East Asian mythologies, who always sought to distinguish the right from the wrong, thus bringing about peace and prosperity.


 

Footprints of the Unicorn

 

D’Alembertrebelled against the methodology of Isaac Newton in deriving the three Laws of Motion. According to him, the concept of ‘force’ developed by Newton is inaccurate as it refers to an inaccessible ‘cause’ of motion. He considered the concept of ‘Force’ defective as it may refer to some universal causes of motion, which are not known and often not even knowable. Instead, d’Alembert developed an alternative description of dynamics of bodies without taking recourse to the concept of ‘force’, as it is presented in his book Traité de dynamiquepublished in 1743. These three principles of dynamics, called D’Alembert’s Principles,are part of classical mechanics today.


 

Accordingly, Newton’s Third Law of Motion is equally true for bodies that are free to move or for bodies that are rigidly fixed. In this way, d’Alembert could circumvent the need of using the concept of ‘force’, which carried metaphysical connotations and defined the principles of dynamics of bodies in a straight forward manner. Thus,d’Alembert accommodated Newton’s Laws of Motion within the Cartesian framework of universal intelligibility.

 

In 1744, he extended this principle into the dynamics of fluids in the book, Traité de l’équilibre et du mouvement des fluids.


 

D’Alembertdeveloped a new branch of differential calculus, namely the partial differential equations and used them for the first time to describe different physical phenomena.The first application of partial differential calculus appeared in his 1747 paper, Réflexions sur la cause générale des vents, which won him a prize at the Berlin Academy. In the same year, he proved the power of his new analysis, based on the partial differential equations. D’Alembert studied the problem of vibrating strings in detail and his results were published in the paper,Recherches sur les cordesvibrantes. This paper presents wave equation in terms of partial derivatives of space and time variables for the first time.

 

A creative mind is a Unicorn


A creative mind is oftensingle-minded and does not oblige to undue influences that deviate it from its search for truth. It distinguishes between the right and the wrong, as a natural instinct and sides with the right, come what may. It loves to work silently and enjoys solitude, though itoccasionally gets entangled withpungent debates and powerful torrents. It offers magical solutions to given problems. A creative mind is a unicorn!


Dr. Varghese Panthalookaran


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