Unlikely Revolutionary — Lagrange

Joseph-Louis Lagrange could not know what lay ahead as he mounted the stage on May 24, 1795, to open the new Ecole Polytechnique. At 59 and a half years old, Lagrange had every reason to be looking forward to a comfortable retirement, but instead the circumstances of the French Revolution had thrust him to the forefront of a radical experiment in science education. Lagrange arrived in Paris in 1787 to join the Royal Academy of Science. At that time, he was perhaps the world’s greatest mathematician. As a member of the Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin during the preceding 20 years, the most productive years of his career, Lagrange established the mathematical basis for the new science of mechanics, and the French academy had awarded Lagrange prizes in recognition of his work, on several occasions. When the French academy finally succeeded to in convincing Lagrange to join its ranks, it was with the expectation that Lagrange would spend the remainder of his brilliant career as yet another shiny bauble in King Louis XVI’s cabinet of human curiosities. However, now the king was gone, a victim of the French Revolution, and with him any expectations for the future that Lagrange may have had when he arrived in Paris.

Paris’ Ecole Polytechnique revolutionized both education and science. Born out of France’s need for a new generation of technically-trained leaders, the Ecole Polytechnique was the first school to offer its students a broad training in math and sciences as a foundation for a career in the military or more advanced training in specialized areas of applied science. The curriculum of the Ecole Polytechnique served as a model for new engineering schools that were established around the world during the industrial revolution of the 19th century. The Ecole Polytechnique also marks the initiation of scientists into the role of educators. Prior to the French Revolution, scientists employed by the state served the interests of the royal court. When the Revolution overthrew the monarchy, scientists lost not only their employer but also their status within a political pecking order that had taken on a decidedly Darwinian cast. As faculty members of the new Ecole Polytechnique, Lagrange and his colleagues were able to forge an important role for themselves in society and set a new course for science in service to the public interest.

Joseph-Louis Lagrange, mathematician and astronomer, is one of 72 scientists and engineers named on the Eiffel Tower.

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William Nuttle

Navigating a changing environment — hydrologist, engineer, advocate for renewable energy, currently writing about the personal side of technological progress