Noel, Étienne

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(b. Bassigny, Haute-Marne, France, 29 September 1581; d. La Flèhe, France, 16 October 1659), Physics.

Noel entered the Society of Jesus in 1599. He taught in several colleges, although principally at La Flechr, where he was répétiteur of philosophy when the young Descartes was studying there prior to 1612; he later became rector of the college. He served as vice-provincial of the Society in 1645–1646. At the end of 1646, when he became rector of the College de Clermont in Paris, Noel sent to Descartes his first two published works: Aphorismi physici (1646) and Sol flamma (1646). The double perspective that characterized all of Noel’s later work is already present: adherence to Aristotelian physics and receptiveness to new ideas.

Well disposed towards Descartes, Noel had several disputes with Pascal, a more radically modern physicist than Descartes. In 1646 Pascal took part in the first performance of Torricelli’s experiment in France. It raised a problem: what remained above the mercury? The traditional philosophers, opposed to the existence of a vacuum, suggested that it was either air or vapors of mercury, while Descartes, also a partisan of the Aristotelian universe, proposed the idea of a subtle matter. When Pascal published Expériences nouvelles touchant le vice (1647), in which he disputed the Aristotelian concept of a full universe, Noel sent the young scientist a letter containing his objections. He asserted, in particular, that the upper portion of Torricelli’s barometer was not empty, but was filled with a refined air that had entered through the pores in the glass—a notion similar to Descartes’s Pascal’s reply was a lesson in method, which exposed the lack of rigor in Noel’s principles and arguments. Noel made a few concessions, but refused to admit the existence of a vacuum. He attacked this idea in a work with the baroque title Le plein du vide (1648), which provoked new criticisms from Pascal in Letter à Le Pailleur.

Noel remained unembittered toward Pascal and the following summer, in Gravitas comparata, honored Pascal for his role in developing an experiment to produce a vacuum within a vacuum. Noel left Paris a short time later and returned to La Flèche, where he published several further works of minor importance.


A bibliography of Noel’s writings is given in Sommervogel, ed., Bibliothèque de la Compagnie de Jésus, V (Brussels-Paris, 1894), cols. 1789–1790. The Noel-Decsartes correspondence is found in Descartes’s Oeuvers de Descartes, C. Adam and P. Tannery, eds., IV (Paris,1901), 498, 567, 584–586; V (1903), 101, 117–118, 119–120, 549–552; XII (1910), 556; and Descartes’s Correspondance, C. Adam and G. Milhaud, eds., I (Paris, 1936), 374–375; II (1939), 29–30; VII (1960), 171, 221, 238–240, 411; VIII (1963), 7.

For a discussion of Noel of his work see Oeuvres de Descartes, C. Adam and P. Tannery, eds., I (Paris, 1897), 382–384, 454–456; Dupont-Ferrier, Du collège de Clermont au lycée Louis-le-Grand, III (Paris, 1925), 7; Pascal, Oeuvres, Brunschvicg and Boutroux, eds., II (Paris, 1908), 77–125, 158, 174-214, 253-282, 291-294, and Oeuvres complètes, J. Mesnard, ed., II (Paris, 1971), 509-540, 584–602, 633–639; C. de Waard, L’expérience barométrique, ses antécédents et ses applications (Thouars, 1936); and J. Lewis, “Pascal’s Physical Science,” unpub. diss. (Princeton, 1968).

Jean Mesnard