Poisson Biography

Simeon Denis Poisson was born on June 21, 1781 in Pithiviers in France. When he was young, he was forced to study medicine by his family. However, Poisson began to study mathematics in 1789 at the Ecole Polytechnique, Paris. His two famous mathematician teachers, who later became his friends for life were Pierre-Simon Laplace and Joseph-Louis Langage. Poisson taught at the Ecole Polytechnique from 1802 to 1808. After that, he became an astronomer at Bureau des Longitudes. In 1809, Poisson were elected to become the chair of pure mathematics in the Faculte des Sciences.


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Poisson has been well-known for his contribution of useful mathematics works and excellent, interesting publications. In 1812, he published a book composed of the most useful laws of electrostatics and his new theory, stated that, "Electricity is made up of two fluids, in which like elements repel and unlike attract." In 1837, Poisson published another work, "Research on the Probability of Opinions," which later became known as the Poisson distribution that has been used widely. In the Poisson distribution, he developed a method which can be used to calculate the probability of the success of trials. This probability of success on any one trial is extremely low, but the number of trials is very large.

This theory of distribution has also been applied to daily life. One example is the story of Mr. Statistics or Oddsgiver, published on Fortune.

A real world example often mentioned in the literature concerns the distribution of Prussian cavalry deaths from getting kicked by horses in the period 1875-1894.
As you would expect of Teutons, the Prussian military kept meticulous records on horse-kick deaths in each of its army corps, and the data are neatly summarized in a 1963 book called Lady Luck, by the late Warren Weaver. There were a total of 196 kicking deaths--these being the, er, "successes." The "trials" were each army corps's observations on the number of kicking deaths sustained in the year. So with 14 army corps and data for 20 years, there were 280 trials. We shall not detain you with the Poisson formula, but it predicts, for example, that there will be 34.1 instances of a corps' having exactly two deaths in a year. In fact, there were 32 such cases. Pretty good, eh?

Poisson's publications were between 300 and 400 on mathematical works which could be applied to electricity, magnetism, and astronomy. Some of his works were "A New Theory of Capillary Action" (1831), "Mathematical Theory of Heat" (1835), "Researches on the Probability of Opinions" (1837), and "Traite de Me Canique" (1811, and republished 1833).

The Most Important Work

Although his name is attached to many areas of study such as Poisson's integral, Poisson's equation in potential theory, Poisson brackets in differential equations, Poisson's ratio in elasticity, and Poisson's constant in electricity, Poisson's most important, well-known work is a series of papers on definite integrals and his advances in Fourier's series.

The Contradiction of Newtonian The irregularities in the shape of the earth caused differences in gravitation. In Fourier series, by using the gravitational potential approach, Poisson came across with "an equation in which, unlike Newton's, could be solved under rather general conditions."

***Explanation of "the Poisson equation in 2 Dimensions" is beyond this web page's scope!

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The Significance of Poisson's Work in Arcadia

Poisson's work was mentioned in scene 7 page 81 when Thomasina and Septimus discussed about the waltz. He explained how the waltz related to Poisson's demonstration, "the equation of the propagation of heat in a solid body" (Stoppard 81). As a matter of fact, this new discovery contradicted with Newtonian. He proved that atoms did not always obey Newton's assumptions. 'If everything from the furthest planet to the smallest atom of our brain acts according to Newton's law of motion, what becomes of free will' (Stoppard 5).

Furthermore, another Poisson's work, the Poisson's distribution, also related to the plot of Stoppard's Arcadia. As we all knew that the biggest mistake Bernard had done in his life was his false conclusion of the death of Mr. Chater, a poet and a botanist. This failure, which resulted from his selfishness and desires of becoming famous, had ended his research. Too afraid to say farewell, he rapidly ran away from Sidley Park to avoid all the troubles that he had caused. As a matter of fact, the reader partially felt sorry for "this arrogant literary detective" who left the park in despair and remorse, but, overall, he deserved it.

The main point, however, was his investigation. Although he discovered many reasonable evidences, gathered fascinating facts, and thought carefully, he just misinterpreted one important piece "the monkey bit Mr. Chater to death" So, the number of "trials" or the number of facts was very large, but the probability of the "success" or the probability to come across with the right conclusion is extremely low.

Page by Kuong Vuong

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Created by
Khuong Vuong
Posted: 5 March 1998

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