Saturday, September 19, 2009

September 19: Jean-Baptiste Delambre

Jean Baptiste Joseph, chevalier Delambre
September 19, 1749 - August 19, 1822

Jean-Baptiste Delambre was a French mathematician and astronomer. He was also director of the Paris Observatory, and author of well-known books on the history of astronomy from ancient times to the 18th century.

After a childhood fever, he suffered from very sensitive eyes, and believed that he would soon go blind. For fear of losing his ability to read, he devoured any book available to him and practised his ability to memorise. He thus immersed himself in Greek and Latin literature, acquired the ability to recall verbatim entire pages of books he may have read weeks beforehand, became fluent in Italian, English and German and even published Règles et méthodes faciles pour apprendre la langue anglaise (Easy rules and methods for learning English). In 1788, he was elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

In 1801, First Consul Napoléon Bonaparte took the presidency of the Academy of Sciences and appointed Delambre its Permanent Secretary for the Mathematical Sciences, a post he held until his death.

After Méchain's death in 1804, he was appointed director of the Paris Observatory. He was also professor of Astronomy at the Collège de France. The same year he married Elisabeth-Aglaée Leblanc de Pommard, a widow with whom he had lived already for a long time. Her son, Achille-César-Charles de Pommard (1781-1807) assisted Delambre on several occasions in his astronomical and geodetical surveys, notably the measuring of the baselines for the meridian survey, and the latitude definition for Paris in December 1799 which was presented to the Conference of Savants.

Delambre was one of the first astronomers to derive astronomical equations from analytical formulas, was the author of Delambre's Analogies and, after the age of 70, also the author of works on the history of astronomy like the Histoire de l'astronomie.

He was a knight (chevalier) of the Order of Saint Michael and of the Légion d'honneur.

The crater Delambre on the Moon is named in his honor.

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