Simanaitis Says

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SOMETIMES PASSIONATE highly intelligent people are the easiest marks. Or so it seemed with 19th-century French mathematician Michel Chasles. Chasles had a passion for collecting antiquarian ephemera; fellow Frenchman Denis Vrain-Lucas provided these documents. Today, in Part 1, we discuss Chasles’ mathematical career and ardent patriotism. Tomorrow, in Part 2, we learn that Chasles was not a particularly discerning collector. Nor was Vrain-Lucas a master forger.

I learned about Michel Chasles and Denis Vrain-Lucas from one of Howard Eves’s mathematical anthologies, In Mathematical Circles. Other clues came from my usual Internet sleuthing.

Michel Chasles, 1793–1880, French mathematician with a speciality in geometry.

Chasles the Mathematician. In 1837, Michel Chasles made a name for himself with Aperçu Historique sur l’Origine et Dévelopment des Méthodes en Géometrie. In 1841, he was appointed professor at École Polytechnique. In 1845, he advanced to a chair at the Sorbonne, Université de Paris. His reputation flourished, with several theorems bearing his name, one in geometry, another in gravitation, a third in kinematics.

Chasles was elected a Foreign Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1864. A year later, he was awarded the Copley Medal, bestowed by Britain’s Royal Society for outstanding achievements in any branch of science.

Eves cites “an oft-repeated sentence, ‘All the geometers of Europe are disciples of M. Chasles.’ ”

All in all, a prestigious mathematical career.

Chasles the Mark. Eves continues, “But Chasles was an especially ardent French patriot, and his nationalistic pride led to a debacle. When shown some letters, purportedly written by Pascal, in which the laws of gravitational attraction were set out, he eagerly bought them; here was proof of France’s priority over Newton’s England!”

Image by Frits Ahlefeldt.

Zut alors! It was not Newton’s apple, it was Pascal’s pomme! ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2018


  1. Frank Barrett
    October 7, 2018


    Thank you so much for educating me and many others about these esoteric characters and nefarious situations. Without you, I’d never have known…

    That said, 2018 marks the 70th anniversary of the debut of the Citroen 2CV, which deserves a little of your kind attention!


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