Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon

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For the town in Côte-d'Or, see Buffon, Côte-d'Or.
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Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon

Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (September 7, 1707April 16, 1788) was a French naturalist, mathematician, biologist, cosmologist and author. Buffon's views influenced the next two generations of naturalists, including Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Charles Darwin.

Buffon is best remembered for his great work Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière (1749-1788: in 36 volumes, 8 additional volumes published after his death by Lacepede). It included everything known about the natural world up until that date. In it Buffon considered the similarities between humans and apes, and the possibility of a common ancestry. Those who assisted him in the production of this great work included Louis-Jean-Marie Daubenton. Buffon's work is considered to have greatly influenced modern ecology (see history of ecology).

The problem of Buffon's needle in probability theory is named in his honor.

In Les époques de la nature (1778) Buffon discussed the origins of the solar system, speculating that the planets had been created by comets colliding with the sun. He also suggested that the age of the earth was much greater than the 6,000 years proclaimed by the church. Based on the cooling rate of iron, he calculated that the age of the earth was 75,000 years. For this he was condemned by the Catholic Church in France and his books were burned.

Depite his many brilliant insights he is also known for expounding the theory that nature in the New World was inferior to that of Eurasia. He argued that the Americas were lacking in large and powerful creatures, and that even the people were far less virile than their European counter parts. He ascribed this to the marsh odours and dense forests of the continent.

He was born at Montbard, Côte d'Or. His father, Benjamin Leclerc, was the Lord of Dijon and Montbard. He attended Jesuit College from the age of ten, and then Angers University. He began studying law, but soon began to concentrate on his twin interests of mathematics and science.

He was forced to leave university after becoming involved in a duel, and set off on a grand tour of Europe, returning when his father's remarriage threatened his inheritance.

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He first made his mark in the field of mathematics and in Sur le jeu de franc-carreau introduced differential and integral calculus into probability theory. During this period he corresponded with the Swiss mathematician, Gabriel Cramer.

His translations of works by Isaac Newton and Stephen Hales' Vegetable staticks into French heightened his interest in biology.

He moved to Paris, making the acquaintance of Voltaire and other intellectuals. He joined the French Academy of Sciences at the age of 27. He was Keeper of the Jardin du Roi (later Jardin des Plantes) in Paris from 1739. During his period in charge he converted it from the King's garden to a research centre and museum, and the park was considerably enlarged, with the addition of many trees and plants from around the world.

He was created Comte de Buffon in 1773. He died in Paris 1788.

Wood tests

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Statue of Buffon in the Jardin des Plantes

Buffon performed one of the most comprehensive series of tests that had been undertaken at their time on the mechanical properties of wood. Included were a series of tests to compare the properties of small clear specimens with those of large members. After carefully testing more than 1,000 small specimens and being extremely careful to ensure that the specimens contained no knots or other defects, Buffon concluded that it was not possible to predict the properties of full-size timbers containing defects from tests of small specimens, and he began a series of tests on full-size structural members. His conclusion that tests of small specimens (without further adjustment) cannot be used to predict the properties of full-size members raised a question that was to continue into the 20th century.

Preceded by:
Jean-Joseph Languet de Gergy
Seat 1
Académie française
Succeeded by:
Félix Vicq d'Azir
de:Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon

es:Georges Louis Leclerc, conde de Buffon fr:Buffon


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