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Georges Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon

Georges Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon

1707-1788

French Geologist and Naturalist

Georges Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon, is referred to as Buffon. He is primarily remembered for his encyclopedic Natural History (Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière, 44 volumes, 1749-1804). His father, Benjamin François Leclerc, was a state official in Burgundy. Buffon liked to say that he inherited his intelligence as well as his fortune from his mother. While a student at the Jesuit's College of Godrans in Dijon, Buffon demonstrated an aptitude for mathematics. Although his father wanted him to prepare for a career as a lawyer, Buffon was drawn to the study of mathematics and astronomy. A youthful love affair and a duel interrupted his studies and forced him to leave France for tours of Italy and England with the Duke of Kingston. While in England, Buffon was elected a member of the Royal Society.

When his mother died, Buffon returned to France and used his inheritance to pursue his interests in natural history and mathematics. Buffon explored the binomial theorem and the calculus of probability. His first publication on games of chance introduced differential and integral calculus into probability theory. He conducted a famous probability experiment by throwing loaves of French bread over his shoulder onto a tiled floor. The number of times the loaves fell across the lines between the tiles were then counted and compared with the value reached by theoretical calculations. This experiment, which could also be conducted with needles and a chessboard, created great interest among mathematicians and led to the proposition now known as "Buffon's needle problem," which asks the probability that a needle of a given length will fall on a line when a piece of paper is ruled with parallel lines a specific distance apart.

In 1735 Buffon published a translation of Stephen Hales's Vegetable Staticks. In the preface to this study of plant physiology, Buffon discussed his own ideas about the scientific method. Five years later, he published a translation of Sir Isaac Newton's Fluxions. In 1739 Buffon was appointed keeper of the Royal Botanical Garden and Natural History Museum. Assembling a catalog of the royal collections in natural history provided the impetus for Buffon's attempt to create the first modern systematic account of natural history, geology, and anthropology. Buffon began working on his great Natural History in 1749. (The last eight volumes of the beautifully illustrated 44-volume encyclopedia were published after Buffon's death by the Count de Lacépède [1756-1825].) In 1753 Buffon became a member of the prestigious French Academy and presented his famous "Discourse on Style." He was made a count in 1773. Buffon's only son was claimed by the guillotine during the French Revolution (in 1794).

Despite the great popularity of his writings, Buffon had many critics among scientists, scholars, and theologians. Buffon's ideas about geological history, the origin of the solar system, biological classification, the possibility of a common ancestor for humans and apes, and the concept of lost species were considered a challenge to religious orthodoxy. His Epochs of Nature and Theory of the Earth were especially controversial. Buffon was the first naturalist to construct geological history into a series of stages. He suggested that Earth might be much older than church doctrine allowed and speculated about major geological changes that were linked to the evolution of life on Earth. Buffon suggested that the seven days of Creation could be thought of as seven epochs of indeterminate length. He proposed that Earth and the other planets were formed during the first epoch as the result of a collision between the Sun and a comet. During the second epoch, Earth cooled and became a solid body. During the third epoch, Earth was covered by a universal ocean. In subsequent epochs, the waters subsided, volcanoes erupted, dry land was exposed, and plants and animals appeared. The original landmass broke up and the continents separated from each other. Finally, human beings appeared. These speculations led to an investigation by the theology faculty of the Sorbonne. Buffon avoided censure by publishing a recantation in which he asserted that he had not intended his account of the formation of the earth as a contradiction of Scriptural truths.

LOIS N. MAGNER

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